March 2008 By Jen Garfield, for Prick of the Spindle Poet Jennifer Barber is petite and soft-spoken, but don’t let her size fool you. When I met her at her office at Suffolk University in Boston, where she is an assistant professor of English, she […]
Month: March 2008
Drama, Vol. 2.1, March 2008
A couple stands in front of their kitchen window. A cow has wandered into their yard and is eating weeds.
Donna: Look, honey, wonder whose cow that it is.
Howard: What cow?
Donna: The cow there in the yard.
Howard: That’s not a real cow.
Donna: Of course it is. It’s eating weeds.
Howard: You just think that because that’s what you think a cow would do if a cow were to come into the yard.
Donna: I’m looking right at it.
Howard: How do you know the TV’s not reflected in the window? That happens you know.
Donna: I’ll go milk it and bring you a pail as proof.
She goes out and returns with a half-full pail of milk.
Donna: See, it is a real cow.
Howard: That’s not a pail of cow. It’s a pail of milk.
Donna: Milk that came from the cow.
Howard: Of course milk comes from cows.
Donna: Why would I deceive you? I love you.
Donna: I’ll prove it’s a cow.
She goes out and returns with the cow’s cud.
Donna: Look. She extends his hand, the cud proudly displayed in her palm. I got it straight from the cow’s mouth.
Howard: Don’t wave that ball of yarn at me like some forced confession.
Donna: What will it take to convince you?
Howard: Bring the cow inside, if it’s a real cow.
Donna goes out. She leads the cow into the kitchen.
Donna: Touch it. Touch it. Now do you believe it? It’s right here in the room with you.
Howard: It’s not an elephant.
The cow drinks dishwater from the sink.
Donna: Look! It’s a real cow. It’s drinking.
Howard: What a lovely bell!
Donna: And cows wear bells. See?
Howard: Are you saying the bell isn’t for me?
Donna: If you want it, I suppose…
Howard: Such a lovely bell. And these browns are brilliant. I’d love to paint the guest room with them.
Donna: The spots?
Howard: Ignoring her. Feel the strength of this cord. He pulls the cow’s tail. We can tie it to the bell. It’ll be excellent for ringing. Our guests will be able to ring for us if they need anything.
Donna: Careful, dear. It might kick.
She starts to lead the cow out of the house.
Howard: Wait. Where are you going with those beautiful black paperweights? Our guests. What if there’s a wind and our guests’ papers blow out the window? They would never forgive us.
Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008 Rick sighed and ran his fingers through his slicked and shiny black hair, closing his eyes and grumbling a prayer for strength under his breath. Nola watched from across the table, focusing on the throbbing vein in his left temple, […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008 This floor, our floor—if you must know we rent, but the place a person eats, shits, sleeps, and makes children is, metaphysically speaking (or at least bacterially) theirs—is French oak, which has more knots than American and is darker in […]
Poetry, Vol. 2.1, March 2008
After a hard night
you follow the attendant down the street-dark hall
to the table where I’m lying.
He takes a sharp breath
like a knife into his nostril and lifts
the sheet. You see
the light of an all-night café
in Durango, Colorado, in Christmas week,
that electric light in the deep snow
pre-dawn glow. Dozens of hours
later you’ll rest, a heron exhausted
by the flag’s crack and rigging’s moan,
asleep, wing up in the sand.
Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008 We spent the summer in your father’s deep-woods cabin, a place where I was convinced drowned women haunted each room, each timbered closet. You left during the day to work. Playing house, I read for hours, awaiting your return. A […]
Poetry, Vol. 2.1, March 2008 The light a yellow habit, vineyard monk among wartime perfumed letters bent, the old purple three cent stamps in their thumb-torn corners, love-language refolded. What crumbled pages of yellow pollen does he seek in the seams of their black- stockinged […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008
2 October, 2007
I am here.
I forgot how much I love autumn—the pure, honest season, not the mild, artificial ones we’ve tolerated for the last twenty years. You’ve always been happy that we migrated South, but certainly you can appreciate the flaming drama of dying foliage, the tinkling music of leaves sweeping across asphalt, a clear sky disguised in summer blue with air crisply cold, and the pervasive redolence of a woodstove somewhere burning cedar. Here I am ambushed with memories of first-days: of school, football games, apple picking with my mother, Halloweens with my brothers. To be met with this intense familiarity in a Nordic country so many miles from the familiar is simply remarkable. And there’s still snow to come; I’m anxious to see what memories will drift in then.
Matti’s brother Paavo picked me up from the airport. I had never met Paavo before (he wasn’t at the funeral), and only ever heard Matt mention him a few times. I thought I would find my dear friend in his younger brother, but only physically does he resemble Matt. Paavo is perhaps the quietest man I have ever known (and that’s coming from me!). His wife is inexplicably quieter. But both are not want for generosity, and have made me feel welcome in their small home.
Paavo drove me around the city center this afternoon—a small, charming harbor city, blemished only by a nearby paper mill that sends its garbage stench on the fairest breeze—and then took me to the university where he teaches. The campus, on the outskirts of the city, is architecturally modern, but also organically entangled with the sprawling woods. Despite the students biking the walking paths in herds, the compact Swedish cars zipping through, and the buses belching by, the encroaching trees blanket the campus in a palpable peace. Nature prevails here, even in the city.
Things were not all peaceful today, however. When Paavo took me to his office, every member of the English department’s faculty was amassed in the hall. Their polite fawning was embarrassing and completely unexpected; I really had no idea I’d be known way out here. Luckily, Paavo, humiliated by the violation of my privacy at his hands, stole me away. He apologized the entire ride home so often I quit saying it was okay. Apparently Paavo told the department head of my visiting in confidence, which she couldn’t honor, perhaps because Oulu is the only university this far north with a humanities department, and they must not get many, if any, writers. However, now they are insisting on joining us in Paavo’s cabin in a few weeks. (This news was met with more simpering apologies.) My instinct was to reject the idea, since I need privacy to work, especially with this project. But as I think on it more, I’m becoming more open to the idea. My project also calls for the cultural experience, so being cooped up with Finns for a few months, literary ones at that, might help. So tomorrow I’ll tell Paavo that I’m okay with others accompanying us in his cabin. But until then, they better not expect me to guest lecture or give a reading (if they have that ridiculous custom here).
It’s late and I should try to sleep, despite my body’s restlessness. Tried writing, but found I only wanted to write you. A very foreign feeling writing you a letter, Liz. Can’t remember the last time I did so—before we married? When we first met in high school? Must be, for my missing you feels adolescent, a style of longing dormant for 40-some years.
I will write more (and better) tomorrow.
Just returned from a dinner party given in my honor by Outi, the English department head (a girlish woman of maybe 35). I’m still dizzy from all the forced conversation and Finnish vodka, liquor, and beer I was pushed to try. Finns drink very hard, and seem to expect American novelists to do the same (why would they think that? ha ha). Paavo got especially drunk, transforming into an unfortunate caricature of a happy drunk, leaning on people and garbling in their ear. No one seemed surprised or annoyed.
Even though I was uncomfortable with the social aspect, I love the way Finns speak English. Most are taught it; some do it better than others. It appears English is tricky because of its simplicity in comparison with the more acrobatic Finnish; their tongues must regress to shape our dull language, and the product is a calm, almost wet delivery. On the other hand, during conversation they have an odd and frequent habit of inhaling agreement, which I can only liken to the sucking-in surprise of someone stepping into a very cold lake. As a visitor, I hope to study their language out of respect, but also as part of my professional obligation to understand the mysteries of semiotics. For surely these fantastic words (keskusta, linnanmaa, paikallisliikenteen) change the way one perceives the signified. Certainly a new syntax reorders the thoughts in one’s brain, restructuring his maneuvering with the world.
Right now I wish I were with you out on the porch to discuss these things, or to listen to the crickets and the lake settling and your breathing. But in the quiet of the night, the elephant bounds in, looms, and I’m not entirely sure how to address it. I never gave you a good reason for leaving, and that reticence is only made more deafening accompanied by the distress of the first time I left you to come here, which feels like forever ago—a different time, a different me. Perhaps this time I couldn’t explain my decision because it was (is) mysterious to me. Matt’s passing awoke things I’m still trying to sort out, and hopefully soon, when I have, I can give you more.
I love you dearly, Liz, and hope this trip hasn’t spoiled anything between us.
16 October, 2007
Thank you so much for the surprises! I especially enjoyed the circus peanuts and candy corn—good American Halloween candy. The most popular candy here is actually salty—they call it salmiaki.
Your timing as always is perfect. On the day I received your package, Paavo and I were to go hiking near the Russian border, and I wore the knee brace. I tolerated the hike well—the mountain scenery, the brisk air, and the hypnotic silence did much to distract my old joints—but I am sore in every crick of me today. Paavo tried to get me into the sauna (every house here has one) to assuage my pain. He doesn’t understand why I won’t, and I don’t know how to explain it to him.
You mentioned my writing, articulated my circumstance as best as can be done. My project is very slow in coming. In fact, I haven’t even written anything down, except a few notes on a book I picked up here called the Kalevala (you’ve probably heard of it, my Jeopardy whiz). It’s Finland’s epic poem, its Iliad or Odyssey. It reads like spell, with fantastic characters enacting a mystifying story. Strangely, many of the passages speak directly to me. Like this one:
Long my tale’s been in the cold
for ages has lain hidden:
shall I take the tales out of the cold
scoop the songs out of the frost
bring my little box indoors
the casket to the seat end
under the famous roof beam
under the fair roof
shall I open the word-chest
and unlock the top of the ball
untie the knot of the coil?
I may use this as the epigraph for the novel, extrapolate the theme and perhaps title from this. Maybe I’ll write it in this bygone poetic structure, within which the plot, characters, and setting would be sleek and contemporary: unfamiliar and unmythical. I don’t know, but the old rusty wheels are cranking, Liz, and again I wish we had our quiet nights, your patient ear listening to my crazy ideas.
The poem asks if I should take the tale out of the cold; you’ve made your response quite clear, and I will do my best to honor it. You asked who decided to come out here, the writer or your husband. I don’t know how rhetorical this inquiry was, but as always you hit the essential question, the very issue this project is evoking. It’s both. Your Tom is all knotted up in this, and I’ve come out here to untie him.
The first snow of the season has just begun to fall. The flakes are the big fluffy kind, like cloud chunks, and the sight of them riddling the gray afternoon delivers me back to childhood in Oneida, and days with you and the kids out on Long Island. I believe I will brace my knee, tough out the pain, and take a walk in this wintry gift. I will bring you along.
Much love, Tom
31 Oct, 07
Not surprisingly, I was atrocious over the phone. It was divine to hear your voice, but it must have been awful to listen to me bumble assurances. And then the phone card ran out, just as I was adjusting! I didn’t even have the chance to tell you what I could say right: I love you.
Perhaps I should revisit the points I was trying to make over the phone. In a way, I’m glad you’re reading the Kalevala as well—it bridges one of many breaches between us (though that doesn’t seem to be the reason for your acquiring it). The parallels you drew between me and our epic hero Väinämöinen are probably accurate: I may in fact be a clumsy voyager who “makes unfortunate decisions.” But be assured: my quest here will not last an epic period of time. In fact, I have no intention of completing my project—I am not even certain I will begin it. Like many others, I cannot write within the experience; I need detachment and perspective before I can begin to render and manipulate. The purpose of this trip is to stockpile the experience for later reflection, perhaps taking some notes and making some sketches along the way. I admit to having some demons to exorcise, but I will not turn that into a mythic saga. So I’ll repeat the date I told you over the phone: February 15, in time for my birthday.
Tomorrow we set out for the excursion I came here for. Paavo’s family’s cabin deep in the Arctic—near the Norway border—is where we’ll be staying the remaining three months. Unfortunately, the cabin is too remote to receive mail, let alone electricity or running water. But Paavo assures there’s a town about ten miles away with a post office, so when I get there, I’ll send you another letter with the new P.O. box address.
Liz, it pained me to hear of you in distress, especially since it resulted from my negligence. I should have made my plans clearer to you. When I return, I want to take you somewhere warm and tropical—perhaps Hawaii or St. Martin. We will sit on a beach of white sand drinking cold piña coladas under palm trees, listening to the rustling of fronds and the sibilance of ocean waves and talk of nothing but foolishness. Conjure up this image the next time my absence fouls your mood; lie down to bed with it nights, as will I.
I love you my beach beauty,
Eleven of us van prowling through Arctic twilight, steady line of purple snow racing out the window, distant mountains gradually growing. Meanwhile Abba and Meatloaf blare from the radio, Finns singing along happy or oblivious.
I am here.
Have you gotten to the part in the Kalevala where Aino drowns herself because she was forced to marry Väinämöinen? Her mother was so leveled with grief, her copious tears forming rivers, sprouting birches, birches keeping cuckoos who call out reminders of Aino’s fate. (And our hero Väinämöinen, broken by grief.) I wake up to cuckoos, Liz.
Survival here is a basic struggle. We hack away at wood, we haul lakewater from a hole axed in ice, we shovel paths for mobility, we shiver in bunks, then add another log. Then there’s downtime: a scary Nordic beast—3 hours of daylight, noon to 3. Candles always oranging the commons room (purple snow glow from windows). The Finns, they play cards, they drink real hard, they use Sauna (said without article), and they are still fascinated by me. I don’t know what they will do when those things wear thin. Me, I am thrilled by the conditions. There’s time to write and read. Time to experience and fiddle with knots. To study cuckoo song. (Then there’s time to think latenight when the Finns sleep and cold creeps in and my mind wanders out into the woods passing through trees, trudging through snow, peering down the slope at the frozen lake listening for the stirring beneath the ice. Listening too hard.)
The candle wax is a puddle, the flame going. This is not the way I wanted to end the letter. I’ll give you a better one next time.
Thank you for the photograph—that catfish is nearly as big as Ryan. I often wonder what creatures roam in this lake. Nights I stand on the ice and peer down into the hole expecting to see the spiny back of some prehistoric lakemonster. The water is blacker than anything you’ve ever seen. It stirs up the imagination, it scares hell out of me. There’s folklore to water, a timelessness that intrigues me (ever wonder why we’ve always lived near it? either the ocean or the lake?). This lake is pregnant with meaning—its story sung in gurgles, poetry its only interpreter. Väinämöinen couldn’t translate the song and suffered the grief. Then he had his second chance in his arms when Aino took mermaid form—he was about to carve her up for a meal but she rebuked him for not recognizing her and swam off, this time for good. My second chance may be slithering out of my arms as well, standing too much on the ice, peering too long into the hole.
I did not write you intoxicated, Liz. Sadly you caught me in the early stages of my transition, for the Arctic element is tricky adjusting to. Cabin living is especially challenging. We wake up after sleeping in sweaters and pants, cut wood to rewarm the cabin, fetch water, make breakfast (which consists of very strong coffee and makkara, or sausage, maybe a slice of dark bread and a hunk of cheese if any’s left over from the once-a-week trip to town), downtime, maybe a hike if it isn’t snowing, prepare sauna (it takes a couple hours to warm), eat dinner (sausages, bread), sauna (not me, Liz), downtime, bed. Even for the Finns, this cabin is too unrelenting. After only two weeks, two of the ten have left already, perhaps because my novelty wore off. (Ironically, it’s Petri and Sirpa, the two American Lit. professors—they exhausted their questions about interpretation and intention.) I honestly don’t know what keeps the others, for what keeps me is entirely different. Unless we all have our lakemonsters.
You are in my dreams Liz.
P.S. You still reading Kalevala? What the hell is this Sampo Väinämöinen seeks?
No, I don’t have the Oxford edition, and I’m glad for it—the translator’s conclusion that we must accept the Sampo as mystery would compel me to chunk the book into the fire. That’s lazy interpretation.
It’s been vibrating my brain alert nights; I’ve been going over and over its few appearances in the epic: In “Forging the Sampo,” dejected Väinämöinen meets Louhi, mistress of the Northland, who promises to return Väinämöinen to his home (and his sauna) as well as bestow her daughter on him, if he can forge this Sampo. He tells her he hasn’t the ability to forge it, but he knows the smith who can, Ilmarinen, the one who crafted the sky. Väinämöinen brought this challenge to Ilmarinen who took it up, persuaded by the maiden gift, and after four failures—forging a crossbow, a boat, a heifer, and a plough—finally forged the Sampo with its triumvirate mills: one for corn, another for salt, the third for money. Once finished, Ilmarinen faced his promised maid, but she turned him down, saying she had work to do in her own land. Much later in the epic (in “Stealing the Sampo”), Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen steal the Sampo from Louhi when Väinämöinen lulls her army by playing his kantele. They take it onto their boat and Louhi sends the fog, which Väinämöinen disperses with his sword. Then she sends the sea-monster, the Gaffer’s son. Väinämöinen threatens it, telling the monster never to return, to which it agrees if spared. The poem then shifts to fable, saying the monster has never since, and never will, show itself to mankind. This is the strange story of the Sampo.
My poor companions are being bombarded with Kalevala questions. If they gave me better answers, I’d leave them alone. Only Paavo and Anja are Scandinavian Lit. professors, and both teach the many theories of the Sampo you mentioned, but don’t have a particular opinion (or don’t care to tell me). Pia, the only historian, will talk extensively on the subject (usually after the Finlandia’s open), but it always shifts into nationalistic bombast on how the Kalevala helped win Finland’s independence.
One request does get satisfied nights, however, and that is to have the Kalevala read to me in native tongue. This wish is typically fulfilled by either Paavo—who seems to feel some guilt at not having more to offer on the subject of the Sampo—or Tipu, the one grad student who came along for some sort of credit, and as such, is willing to do just about anything no one else wants to do (which includes reading to me).
It’s a spell, Liz; a haunting chant. I sit back in the firelight and listen to the crooked cadence, the cumbersome, mesmerizing music, imagining meaning into the words, each enunciated syllable triggering an action in the epic, tickling the prehistoric part of my brain that understands this language. By the conclusion of the reading, I feel wiser on the subject, but hardly smarter.
It has now become the quest of my novel to demystify the cursed Sampo once and for all.
The other night, I finally braved the first step.
I’ve been avoiding sauna this entire time. (Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve been timorous by the very word?) Well, I took it on, much to my group’s delight—they’ve been pressing me about it nightly and my acquiescence might have actually delayed many of their leaving.
It was a monumentally difficult return. You know how it feels, Liz, to visit a childhood place after decades of absence (neglect) and how the smells—perhaps the pine of a grandmother’s yard, or the must of the back of her closet—rip you back so hard and fast your stomach rollercoaster aches? It was the very same, triggered most mercilessly by smell: the cedary redolence of hot wood, the burning scent of steam—the violent transition of lakewater tortured upon scalding rocks. But there’s more to it than olfaction. The sensation of enduring pain in the form of heat, sucking fire into your lungs, water pouring out your skin as if your skin is turning to water, posturing your body to tolerate the heat, the pain, the sweat. This is an ancient ritual for Finns, and yet it’s personal. An internal struggle.
Still, the Sampo remains somewhere at the bottom of that lake. My nights remain busy peering into the hole, cursing my fear.
(Is this something I can even tell you about? I’m beginning to question everything I reveal, since you scrutinize even the slightest slip of my pen. Hopefully you will not protest sauna description; I desperately want you to know at least something I’m experiencing here.)
I couldn’t wait for your response to write you again. I’ve been thinking about the idea that sauna is the only way to include you, and since I did not accurately describe it in my previous letter, I’m going to give it another try.
I’m taking you in with me.
The ritual begins late afternoon. It takes a couple hours to get the rocks good and hot, so you have to start packing the stove with wood to get the fire going early. The ones assigned to this chore will also fill all the pails with lakewater for ladling. Then you eat dinner. On occasion, some of the Finns have taken their makkara into sauna, cooking them in foil on the rocks. I haven’t yet built up the stomach to eat something greasy around sweating genitalia. A shot of cognac or vodka to warm you up, then it’s time.
As I’ve mentioned, sauna is in a separate cabin, just up the slope apiece. You wear what you have on, and change there, in a little room for that purpose. You will want to bring along a towel to dry off, and if you need to bathe—which is only done in sauna—bring some soap and shampoo. There’s plenty of water in the buckets to rinse.
As we walk up the slope, look down to your left and you’ll see, through the trees, an imposing field of ice arresting the throng of firs. You’ll also notice, reflecting off the frozen lake, a motion of colors—blue, pink, and green—and perhaps, if we pause our march, you’ll hear a cosmic sibilance above our heads. If you look up and catch a break in the trees, you’ll glimpse the Northern Lights swirling the sky. Long ago on a night like this, Matt told me the legend of the lights: the Great Nordic Fox swipes snow up into the sky with his tail, and what we see are the flakes catching the shimmering moonlight. This has always married itself to the image of Matt (and many many years later, his younger brother Paavo), hacking away at the ice with a long ax, the noise of steel to waterbone mixed with mangrunt, and leaping up into his face and into the sky, icesplinters by the thousands.
Just inside the cabin, in a small room on the left is where you remove your clothes—hang everything up on the hooks. It gets a little tight in here when everyone’s undressing at the same time—knees and elbows knocking. So you feel more comfortable, I’ll introduce you to everyone. It’s really an unnecessary formality as you’ll truly get to know these people when suffering heat as a community. Regardless, this is Paavo, Anja, Saana, Outi, Erkki, Kimmo, Pia, and Tipu.
Before we enter, prepare yourself for how hot it’s going to be. If at any time it becomes too much, just step out on the porch and cool off. It’s not a sign of weakness. There’s no reason to try to prove yourself in front of the Finns. (I know how stubborn you can be.)
Feel the wave of heat wash over your face, down your shoulders, your arms, torso, legs. It feels good, like getting into a hot shower after working out in the cold.
There are three levels of bench we could sit on. Obviously the lowest will be coolest, highest hottest. I usually sit in the middle. Wherever we sit will be hot.
Right now, you’re probably very aware that you’re naked, and you don’t know where to settle your eyes because you want to look at everyone else’s body—not out of any sexual desire, but because it gives you a more complete picture of that person. Nothing is hidden now, and you want to match the color of one’s eyes to the shade and size of her nipples; the thickness of one’s fingers to the girth of his penis. You want to look, but know you shouldn’t; but neither do you want to appear uncomfortable, making it obvious that you’re not looking. You’re trying to be casual, but you’ll fail because being casual takes no effort. All I can tell you is in five minutes you’ll be distracted by the heat.
The first ladle of water is poured on the rocks, which will fire off a scorching steam. You’ll notice how focused you are on the pain, on your breathing. You concentrate on your fingertips, watching sweat bead off. But the heat keeps encroaching, and then it plays with your mind. You hurt, so all the hurt you’ve ever experienced—even that which was buried—is recalled. And while you’re not alone in sauna, you’re alone with pain, and sometimes it beats you and you have to leave; sometimes you win, but it’s only a victory for that night. It starts all over your next visit to sauna.
This particular night I stepped outside for a moment to piss off the porch into the snow. You are there: young, Nordicly exotic. It’s December, deep in the Arctic Circle, and we’re completely naked and standing in the frozen world, sweaty arms locked up, feeling magical with the cosmic light folding above us. We are in love for those moments. They are the quietest moments I’ve ever known. And then they were ruined.
Braving the elements in this vulnerable, dangerous way will make you giddy because it doesn’t seem possible. (Matt and Michael naked rolling around in the snow, laughing their fool heads off, their exotic girls looking on.) Sometimes you test this too much, sometimes you take it too far.
Because once you’ve learned to overcome one challenge, you seek out another.
I’m speaking of the lake, the one with the two-person-sized hole axed in the ice. But that’s for another night, and if I’m smart, I’ll do what I should have done: I won’t take you down into it with me.
My prematurely-sent letter has thrown off the order of our correspondence. I’m not even sure to which you are responding—I don’t think it was the most recent. If I had any sense, I’d wait for you to catch up before writing another letter. But then, another part of me is craving disorder. Regardless, I need to keep writing you.
Don’t worry, this time’s harmless: it’s not when I take you in with me. This is the most recent time.
We’re a sweaty herd stamping down the slope toward the frozen lake where the sky’s spectacle reflects phantomlike on the powdery surface. We aim for the black blemish, a hole this time, only Tom-sized. We crowd around the icehole, waiting for the one who’s done it before, Paavo (brother of the one who did it first), to show us it can be done. We are filled with crazies, laughing and terrified.
He plunges in and we crowd the hole to steal a glimpse at the disappearing act, holding breaths for the empty beat. Only a second later he resurfaces, gasping and shrieking and holyshitting in his language, leaping out of the water with the instinctual dexterity of his very early and opposite-poled ancestor, the penguin: disappearing off the ice, up the steps, back into sauna.
It can be done. Could it be done again?
My turn is soon coming as the others imitate the first. There is little thought as to how this will work. The madness, the cold coming, feet sticking to ice, lights slithering across the sky make it hard to think. And then I’m alone, the last one, standing with my toes curled over the purple-white lip of the hole, staring into the roiling black eye of the lake. This is when my logic returns and reminds me of the danger, tells me to fear. There are things in that lake that have been waiting for me, and there’s no telling what they’ll do.
I step off the ice and plunge into the lake.
This is where things go black. How do I describe it to you? What lakewords but bubble and deep do I know?
This is the logic gap that needs filling, for when I tell you that the Tom who comes out—who limps off the ice and up the slope, and who settles back into sauna gasping for air—is never the Tom who went into the lake, can you really believe me? When I say, therefore, your Tom is not returning, can you understand?
Thank you for the Christmas gift, but by now you know I can’t take the trip with you. It is troubling to read your optimistic letter, crafted before you learned I can’t return. It is strange to hold an artifact containing your blissful perspective, while, at this moment, on the other side of the planet, you must be in a state of turmoil—the mind wrecked by knowledge.
And yet, what do you know? Nothing, because you won’t let me tell it. So I have to find another way.
The lake—I’m being a coward, splashing around on the surface. I need to go down if I’m ever to get it right.
Submerging—the muted roar of water rushing ears, the squeeze of volume resisting displacement, slicing assault of cold colder than ice, and then: submerged—the strange halcyon of drifting in this stygian underworld. This is when my eyes come alive, because I’m searching, because when the body disturbs the ancient water, the maze of bubbles blazing with Northern lights mesmerizes; the magnificent iceceiling that glows and pulses shades of pink stupefies. But down is where I’m drawn, to where even my wildly treading feet are lost in the black. How many millions of miles deep, how many prehistoric monsters and microscopic dangers below, is up to the imagination to create. And by God it does: stirring lake giants snapped to attention—a translucent eye popping open, a meaty flipper pushing off the muddy floor—slithering up toward the pale, squirmy intruder. The physical dangers don’t concern me as much as the phantom leviathans ghosting around in the depths, the cursed souls barking out their rages, blackening the water. This is what I baptize myself in nightly.
What I encounter when I submerge, Liz, is a stupid boy who fears me and fights me and flees deeper into the lake every time I draw close. The shadow of his retreat and the scorned expression when our eyes meet are enough to shy away. But I’ve never been good at shying, so I return again and again, having to dive deeper and deeper to refind the boy and try to yank him out. He’s been too long chilling in these waters, also searching and afraid of the change that’s awaiting him on the surface. The last thing he saw was a braid of golden hair twisting down into the pitch and he’s forever grasping at it in his nightmares.
But this is hardly all of it, for I’m contending with all of the mes who have made their visits previous nights (in the quantum fabric of the lake, all events are frozen in one timeless moment). I have to wrestle through them each time, just to begin searching for the boy. These Toms are thick and tumbly at the surface, daft as manatees, battling themselves for space, crowding the hole in the ice, making it increasingly difficult to get out. But there is always hope. There are always the lights to show the way out, either dazzling the bubbles or pulsing the ice pink.
When I emerge as the first time and I crawl off the ice to make for sauna, I am never the same. This I need to make clear to you; another time, way.
Perhaps I am writing in metaphor, it is difficult to distinguish here. But regrettably, my meaning is literal. I can’t begin to search for the language to apologize when I’m still seeking the method to describe the experience. And certainly I cannot call, Liz. To do so, I would have to leave the lake, drive into town, and I cannot leave this lake. (Faithful Paavo, the only one remaining, goes to town to deliver/pick up mail.) But the problem lies more in talking than leaving. I’m so bombarded with all these possible ways to tell you what I need to tell you, all of those ways wrong but all ways that could crowd each other, block out any language, and there I’d be on the phone, mumbling out the dissonance. Please forgive me, but now written expression is all I can trust, and even that is failing me. This is an example of how hard it’s getting; this is one of the rare things I tried to write when I wasn’t writing you:
I went lakedown into the lake we lakefound kicking feet to keep from lakedrowning deafened by the lakesound lakebound by cold fear lakepounding in my ear.
Do you understand Liz? Do you understand how deep I am? No, of course you don’t, because I haven’t found the right way yet. Until I do, I’ll remain the atrocious bastard I deserve to be called. But I’m not surrendering. I still have the fight in me.
I swam for the lights—a ladder of color bending in the black. I would have never gotten out otherwise. Then again, I didn’t come out. As punishment, the lake took me hostage, and this other Tom crawled out of the icehole, alone. My gasping echoed on that expanse of ice, got lost in the firs; my fingers changing colors before my eyes. Recalling nascent instincts, I knew to get off my hands and knees and walk. And I knew where to walk to: sauna, warmth. The lake was slowly pouring from my ears and untinting my eyes, revealing a sudden reality stingingly. I was moving, alone, transitioning to take up the new Tom who was waiting in sauna for me to slip into: head drooped, shivery, crying into his frozen fists like a baby mourning the loss of the womb.
I waited too long in sauna that night. Truth is, I didn’t know how to go along as this new person, and held out as long as possible. Then I did leave, went to the cabin (the others fast asleep), got in bed without saying a word, somehow slept hard, awoke before the others seeking evidence of dream. I visited the lake, and the hole was frozen over.
I could tell no one, Liz, not even Matt (Michael was busy consoling the girls). The story was at the bottom of the lake, wrapped in a braid, my tongue frozen dumb. I left that place, returning—up to recently—only in dream. When I got back, I went back to you, and we married. If it never happened, I would have never come back. I still don’t know what to make of that.
Now you want me to tell it to you “straight and plain”? It’s too late, Liz, far too late:
Perhaps what I lakefound when I went lakedown is a story bubbling from the lakeground. All language derives from a lakenoun.
Can you interpret this? I sure as hell can’t. What about this:
All those years ago I experienced the Sampo—it was thrust upon me. It’s what every writer fears. I encountered it young, and since, I’ve been training (45 years) to take it on. The Sampo is whipping me.
This can’t make sense.
And this? If I return now, I don’t know which Tom would be standing at the doorstep, sitting next to you on the porch, lying next to you in bed. There are a million of us running around here, darting through the trees and splashing about in the lake. Perhaps I was wrong to awaken all these ghosts, but I did, and I’m lost among them. Which Tom? The one who left you the first time? who intended on leaving you for good? the reckless, callow one who went down into the lake for a thrill (the one roaming the woods, snarling at me through the cabin window)? Or is it the Tom in the lake grasping at blonde braids, the one wrestling with his potential self, fighting change (fighting you)? Or worse, would it be the Tom who emerged alone that night, the one you married, the one who married you because (only because?) he emerged alone? This is the Tom you call husband and father and grandfather, not writer. This is the Tom you think you know, the one who returned to you out of circumstance. Is this really the Tom you want coming home?
You still don’t know the least of it. That I no longer know how to tell without lakenouns.
I should have never taken you down I forced you I lost you losing you. You’ve become more than girl you’ve become folklore you’ve become cuckoo song and mermaid you’ve become Sampo. But you were once a girl whom I lost:
Down the slope steps, hand in moist hand, sky ablaze with foxtail, dazzles the young writer. As a group we’d done it the night before. Seemed simple then: in and out like penguins. Now, we are alone. Sauna heat is leaving us, cold coming on. Ten toes curled over the lip of the hole. A black mouth stretching its icy jaws to eat up two.
You say no.
That’s what you’ve been saying, but I haven’t been listening. I’ve been dipping you into the lake night after night, inky letters, cursed words with irreversible meanings, each attempt at telling a tale (too long frozen to tell) sunk you deeper. Losing you.
Then hope arrived, handed over by trusty Paavo (he’s leaving tomorrow with or without me)—it was your letter. I’m shaking by it, your words—a new language to learn, recite:
And then there’s the other part of me, the one who would spend the rest of her days trudging through the snow and ice until she found her man, whoever he is, whoever he became.
Trudge after me? Trade in your Hawaii ticket, follow the light and trudge after me, as old as you are, as lost as I am? No. I’ll follow bubbles, paddle toward a ladder of light, pull myself up and out, stand alone on ice, an old man a sonofabitch American writer on a layer of ice no thicker than a few of his novels (but far more meaningful), a sonofabitch husband shaking by his wife’s words, “trudging,” “rest of her days,” because he wants this last walk to be with him, not after him, even if it’s walking off this ice together, hand in hand, toward sauna.
But how? Your letter is laid out before me flickering in and out of existence—what when the candle burns out? I’m afraid of the dark, of the lake calling. Or is it you I’m afraid of?
I want morning; I want sun, reflecting off the snow and ice, illuminating the world pink and blue. I want to walk outside and feel the blaze, smell the thawing, green and fresh, hear the tinkling music of icicles melting, and the daring cacophony of the first cautious creatures. There is a store of more memories in this mutation. And when the season ends, as the bard articulates at the end of the Kalevala,
I’ll wind my tales in a ball
in a bundle I’ll roll them
put them up in the shed loft
inside locks of bone
from where they’ll never get out
never in this world be free
unless the bones are shaken
the jaws are opened
the teeth are parted
the tongue set wagging.
But, before the thawing—while there’s still freezing, before the sun, while there’s still ghost light, before my time runs out, I’ll brace up my knee and walk down the slope onto the lake’s mammoth skin, visit the hole with a jittery defiance to find a paper crust of ice forming over it, closing up the lake. Whatever’s left in there, so be it. Folklore can have it, turn it into another epic. I’ve given it plenty of material, except for the end. You’ve supplied that:
What do you think, Thomas? Is there sense in you still to direct me to you? Or will you make an old lady hunt her old man down?
This is my last letter to you.
Fiction, Vol. 2.1, March 2008 The day before Jeffrey A. Whetstone turned into a fish, he was a fully functioning, though somewhat inebriated, human being. Twenty-four hours later he was moving slowly along the bottom of the bay, swimming under the green hulls of boats […]