“I don’t like to speak about him in his absence. In his absence. Out of his presence. Now that’s he’s gone. To speak about him when he can’t speak for himself and couldn’t…”
A sigh, a deep inhale of a cigarette; the dog to her side on the sofa kicked in its sleep; she threw back her head and rested her eyes upward. A fan turned slowly in the air, heavy with smoke, ventilation, disuse.
“You know what I mean. I should say that it’s just manners I learned from my mama but that’s a lie. I thought it now and hadn’t thought it before.”
“But at the memorial ceremony of course, the eulogies…”
She begrudged a brief, hardened, hardened laugh.
“I suppose so but if he could be anywhere after passing, it was that room, or else the funeral. But that room more. He came near to his being with us again…”
Hand pressed to the eyes, her glance shuddered downward.
“I don’t know what I’m saying–I’m just somewhat tired. Would you like a coke? I’m just getting one myself.”
The dog roused, and asleep again.
“No thank you”
Patiently following her through to the kitchen, half open to a living room, he broke off to glance down the hallway, to closed doors, to bedrooms, stairs to a basement maybe, to stillness. She returned to the living room, reassumed its hushed demeanor.
“Did he write…?”
“Well of course he wrote, why else would you be here?”
“No, I mean did he write here, or in another room”
She sipped loudly, knocking ice cubes muffled against plastic.
“Because I don’t see a computer or typewriter but the table there looks like a desk–”
“I know, I know what you are asking. I’m thinking is all. Did he write here?”
A sigh churned against something in her throat; tar, mucus, skin?
“He wrote out of doors mostly. Then he could mostly jot them down–bedside table or post-it notes, or–they weren’t long things, you’d think they were from the way people have asked after him–pried into…and too damn late of course.”
“Yes, well their brevity and concision is a part of their success–he achieved a novel compression, quite remarkable for its formal innovations.”
“Yes, like scissors, he said. A scissor-maker. A limited tinker. Scissors designed to cut cloth that nobody owns, except for the fools who dress in it without knowing.”
“But surely he didn’t dismiss his–?”
“That’s not dismissing a thing, his saying that. He wasn’t over-serious though. Get that right. He wasn’t the type to care too much. Might have been more upset about a bad day hunting. He just meant–well, that’s what they are. You’ve read them more than me, you probably think you know them better than me. That’s why you’re here.”
“I’m sorry, it’s not…”
He adjusted his glasses, set them higher on the bridge of his nose and sniffled.
“Was he frustrated then?”
“Well of course he wanted to think people read the damn things, but people he could believe in, and there’s no way of really knowing that. Can’t doubt the world and god knows you need to imagine other people are real, or at least as real as you–like the refrigerator magnet says, I guess. It would be like hell to go around with other people not believing you’re real–takes some imagination though and so many people can’t do it, lack it–that’s I don’t know, that’s what got to him, and not all the time but sometimes, late at night sometimes, or waking up, but I’d say I believe you are real, and he would say he knows but what he wanted was for people to believe it without even knowing him like that, or just knowing that one part of it–those poems–but god he didn’t make it easy, like riddles. I guess you solved it or think you did.”
“I want to–I hope to–think I did. I do believe in him, certainly. I’ve imagined he is real. Meeting you makes me think I was right.”
“Well, thank you then.”
“But–what cloth do you think it would be that they cut then? Reading them and cutting the cloth? Cutting him out of it, like a paper doll, or cutting through it to him?”
A cigarette buried in the ashtray and a laugh, loud to startle, to rescue his attention; she peered at the ash.
“Now you’re almost writing a poem.”
“Maybe he would have approved.”
“Fine. It’s fine. You are making of it more than it was. How about I show you the house a bit more, take you to the porch. Last thing he worked on, but the screen isn’t in right in places. But through here.”
“And that portrait, is that?”
“Oh, who the hell knows, just junk really–junk brought back years ago, when we moved in and needed something on the walls. He would just have been up animal trophies and with his skill that would have meant a wall of squirrel heads. I never much wanted that–the smell, you know, stale and them looking down and eyeing you, but he didn’t mind…”
Standing in place before the browns and oranges of the print.
“Ah, yes, I see, where I grew up, the laws about hunting were quite strict, but there were regions, forests, where some would go. I never did, but it felt somehow a worthwhile tradition, within boundaries, extending back as far as it did, but very few there stuff the animals as trophies. They might use the skins, a gift for grandmothers, and they eat the meat, but not trophies. I am not sure, but I was wondering whether he might have kept plaques from any of the awards he received, from literary societies or grants–from what I understand, there were several major ones”
And still not moving, until:
“Well, yes, I can show you those later too, in the garage, he hung them up there. I thought the hallway would do just fine, but he didn’t want them near the photos of the kids.”
“Of course, though I didn’t. If you don’t mind, how many are there?”
Off the rug, its tattered edge curling up slightly, with a ball of dust clinging to the fringe; the hardwood floor scuffed and the doorsill battered but freshly painted, and piles of shoes, a discarded frisbee, a bat, a clutter of memoranda and post-it notes, and pens on a small table; a small rack and a drying blouse, and a door, more light through it, painful after the dark interior, opening outwards to green plastic carpeting covering a deck, to brisk humid air, chairs, a recliner, a burst as the dog made way past the legs to pounce on a man’s sock in the corner.
“Two. There were three.”
“I’m sorry…so, this is the porch, the, his…it’s a lovely view of the forest.”
“The woods, you mean.”
Eyes squinted to laugh, staring instead, and scanning through the gauze of screening at trees past autumn’s ripeness, at leaves breaking onto the shores of jaundiced grass; a monotonous symphony of insects, and one bird, then another, and a dull steady woodpecker, at work.
“It’s really for summer, when the bugs are bad in the evening, and we could sit here and read or bring out the portable tv and watch a movie”
“Did you like to read together?”
“The deck is much nicer now, the air moves more out here. Don’t let him out.”
The door swung loosely, she lit another cigarette and stood on the stained wood, by a grill, and she squinted again, into cross-hatching of trunk, branch, log, twig, root, upturned tree, ruts, ravines, blemishes of red clay, streaks of ivy, morasses of weed, the echoes of pathways, of foraging trips, a ribbon hanging from one branch, a rusted sign on one trunk, a harmonized abandonment, abandoned harmony, an entire continent managed, tended, bestowed and bestowed and forgotten and this wedge of it, like an old buried cloth, wrapped around a dead bird or mouse or worse, peaking up from the soil.
“God’s landscaping, so we don’t have to pay none”
Laughter aloud, not sparkling but crackling to break into bright sound, echoing even, out of gullies, carried on the same air as an owl’s barren hungry lowing.
“Yes, God’s majesty. It is remarkable–that we can still see it here, even know it, much more than as a cheap prize. And despite the atrocities, the bloodshed and disease. Did you know that early in the state of Virginia, there was cannibalism among the settlers, they were so desperate during the cold winters for food–or at least rumors of it, but the thought that they might have dug up and taken apart the bodies of one another, and taking for granted that the land was theirs, even when they knew not the least thing about it, about its spaces, that they were burned, burned every few years, can you imagine, and that the natives held all of this together as one by necessity even when fighting, because ownership and labor meant just that, finding and making a unity of things, not digging it out, gutting it like it was a dead fish to be boned, but laboring at something better than preservation–the modification, or the exacerbation of what it was into something that could sustain more than itself, without loss of identity. It is, it is in the words, no wonder, when he sat here and looked out. I am envious of you for what you experienced and shared with him.”
Long puffs, drawn in, and eyes wandering beyond him, to the opening of trees acres wide alongside the house, to the pile of wood, to the pale blue sky tumultuous with clouds, to his face again, and a exhalation.
“God’s landscaping was a joke he used to make. He was an atheist.”
“Ah the memorial, and I apologize, it–the word God–does not, I did not mean to imply. Here it has such a heavy meaning, with the evangelicals. I had its literary past in mind, in my own language, also. That is what I should have explained, or perhaps it would have been better not to speak at all. I apologize. I’m so excitable being here, and it has been a long time I’ve worked on him. Years of my dissertation.”
“It’s alright…it’s alright…the woods here are lovely in the fall. It’s a shame you didn’t make it earlier, when he was alive. I understand though–like the man in the Asbern Paper”
“The Aspern Papers, yes”
“It’s been years since I’ve read it, but”
“Do you enjoy the novels of James?”
“Love them. Some of my favorites. I used to have them all, but we never were much for keeping books lying around. I’d read them, then they’d gather mold in the basement while I forgot, and only the kids went down there much anyway. I don’t read as much as a used to, a few novels a month maybe, and those from the library, I don’t even care much what. You know how it is, starting something and just finishing it for the sake of it, and not wanting to ask why. And it became tough–the last year, two even, reading at all, when he couldn’t find words himself. I missed his words, dearly, and do. I should be thankful really that you are doing what you are, publishing an edition”
“Well, I’m not–not yet, I am just writing on him right now, an argument about what I call gestural wit and possessive impropriety in–but I do hope to.”
“Oh, all right then. I don’t know why I thought so.”
The thin door open again, to her touch as if to the wind, fleet, sudden, she walking, dog trailing, stopping to put the sock on a shelf, into the kitchen, and the fridge.
“I just need to take out the chicken to defrost. I usually have dinner by five thirty, and I think you’ll be done by then”
“Yes, if only there is more that you would like to show me. I’m particularly interested in where he wrote or in any notes that he might have made that I could look at, for my own curiosity.”‘
“Well, there is the bedroom, but it’s a mess. That’s where he wrote some things down, on the dresser table. Find him there in the oddest hours. There might be some scraps, but they might be gibberish from when he didn’t have much left. They’re in the drawer now. I’d just throw them in there, rather than have him get upset and scream when he couldn’t find them.”
“If you don’t mind, I won’t judge any mess. My own bedroom is never neat. I don’t think anyone expects it, but it would matter a great deal to me if I could see where he did write, see anything that he wrote, even if it is not what he would have published.”
“I’ll go and see if there’s something I can do. If I can’t tidy, I’ll bring out what there is of the notes. It just will be a minute.”
Around a corner, through the parlor, down the darkened hallway, he following, eyeing photographs on the wall but seeing no colors or forms, only frames and the sheen of glass catching and clinging to what light cowered.
“I’ll just wait outside.”
“Well, you can wait, where you, just I’ll be”
Her shuffle of feet barely opened the door on the left, and it was closed again. He breathed in the dark, the sound of an electric humming from the basement, a low scraping from behind the door, and nothing else until on the right of the hall, behind his back, a hinge creaked, another door, dark wooden like the one on the left, opened slightly, a bright room behind casting a stream across the hallway, greedily to a frame on the wall, smiting dust to dust on the floorboards, and in it, along the door itself, four small whitened finger tips, fingernails painted sloppily, and not half up the doorway, a face, blinking, yawning, confusedly resisting the shape into which it must, the tension growing in his pursed lips, his taut temples, his furrowed brow, settle, and doing so at last, so that she became what she was the entire time in that room, napping probably, now rubbing her eyes, and pulling at the oversized white man’s undershirt down to her thighs, tropical-blue leggings beneath, dopy cartoon eyeballs on her slippers questioning him, as she did, shyly almost retiring back into the room, and hanging there, both hands on the door, it swinging in indeterminate equilibrium–
“Who are you?”
“I’m Martin. I’m here to interview, your… I’m a student.”
“Oh. I am going to get a snack now.”
“And what is your name?”
“You live here?”
She walked through his blankness, a confident patter of bare feet; he followed.
“You are napping in the afternoon, are you unwell?”
“No, I always nap in the afternoon on weekends.”
“But — you must be nine or ten.”
“Are you, does your grandmother not mind”
“Elizabeth, we are eating dinner at five thirty, so don’t fill up on pop tarts. The room is tidied, but there aren’t many scraps, only these few, and I thought I might as well bring them to you, so you can read them here.”
Her feet echoed and a door shut down the hallway.
“I’ve met your granddaughter”
“My granddaughter? Elizabeth is my daughter.”
“But how is that, I don’t understand.”
“She is our last child. Her brother Chris lives with his family in Maryland.”
“Yes, but, she says she is only seven, so…And she was not at the memorial. The eulogies, nobody…”
“He didn’t want her there. She was at the funeral when he died last year. But he didn’t want her to see it or hear what people would say about him at something public like that.”
“I see. I don’t understand though, if she is only nine.”
“Well, she’s eight. But it was late, probably as late as it could happen.”
“But surely, you are in your sixties now?”
“My sixties, well grief must have taken its toll on me then, but my sixties, no I’m a decade away from that number”
“I’m sorry, it was disconcerting seeing her. I assumed that the children must all be grown. I was surprised to find she had been napping, at eight.”
“She has terrible insomnia, terrible, like her father, and she gets tired so the afternoons are for when she naps.”
“I–would she like to join us here. I would like to talk to her.”
“She probably won’t want to. She tends to like to stay to herself, in her room there.”
A final drag of the cigarette, rapidly discarded, and another appeared, a lighter clicking, and clicking until, through exhaled smoke and between teeth clenched on rolled paper
“I’ve left the scraps there, not many of them”
He heard her go to the door, he idly turned over post-it notes stuck with lint, hairs, the lines on each approaching words, some words approaching phrases wandering to the limits of the page, and then running over, as if continued onto another larger sheet, or onto a lacquered desktop, ink not catching on the polish, wiped away now, the words on the page not catching at sense, anyway, and
“I’m getting Rabbit. He misses me”
“That’s the dog. She said she would come and sit, but she probably won’t last long. She doesn’t do well with strangers.”
“I am just glad to meet her. Did she read any of her father’s work ever? I realize she was young, but I think there are some that might be appealing, even if the irony is lost.”
“She’ll tell you herself.”
“Rabbit was looking for a sock to eat so I gave him mine”
“Elizabeth, thank you for spending some of the afternoon with me. I am a great admirer–a fan–of your father’s work, and was wondering if you have ever read anything he wrote, or maybe heard someone read it.”
“I don’t know. Did I, mom?”
“You used to like the one about the moon, when you were younger, and the one about the cows”
“Do you miss him, your father?”
“I do, but I understand. He didn’t need to be alive anymore. He needed something else.”
“What a remarkable… I’m sure he did need you a great deal, but sometimes, yes, people need what we do not understand. It sounds like he needed not to be unable to understand anymore.”
“He needed something else. He has what he needs, and I understand that, so I miss him but he is happier now.”
“Do you remember his voice?”
“I do. It looks purple and scratchy.”
“I see. I like your house very much. Thank you for talking to me.”
“Would you like to see the fort?”
“Elizabeth, he can’t stay for long. I need to eat at five thirty…”
“I can look at the fort quickly. What is it?”
“Well, it’s back in the woods a ways. Her father built it for Chris and then she had to have changes made, and it was something they could do when she was young, the last year that we had him here all with us.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see, even if you would rather not come along.”
“Just be sure she doesn’t take you too much further–I’m not sure she knows her way around as well as she thinks she does, and borrow that bright vest hanging by the door, holler sometimes, there are maybe hunters who come up here when they shouldn’t. I’m just going to get to work chopping some in the kitchen.”
Shadows tumbled across the grass, pleated by work, mushrooms, pines hushing conversation, light planing the way to where the labored ground stopped, ferns, roots, nestled mosses, brambles, all low to the shins, where denim scraped back, his step hesitant and bold, and hers mindless, her boots unperturbed by sudden puddles of marsh, by declivities snaring his ankles beneath thick leaves, not fracturing but subsiding into moist decay, and a branch withheld waist level, then released into his thigh, and clearings where roots made footholds for steps away, out of sight, the woodpecker thrilling the hollowed trees, the rustled undergrowth animating the still aired, and with each step hissed leaves kicked up like smallest pebbles beneath waves on a beach, until not moving, but looking and a rotted set of boards propped against a tree, a trunk nearby, some branches propped, withered, at an angle.
“It’s gone bad. It’s nothing. It’s gone.”
“But I see it. It is a fort, see?”
He moved behind the trunk, crouched beneath the sheltering branch, peered out at her from the boards, clammy and damp, where he held, and worrying that they would give way, he released.
“I will let nobody in. Who will defy me? Who will make their way into the fort? I defy them. I defy them. I defy them!”
Echoing, repulsively, into emptiness.
“No, it’s not right, not what it was. It should be different.”
“It shouldn’t be. This is what happens to the best forts. Where I am from, all of the best forts are ruins. They are part of the landscape, and start to look more secret that way. That’s why the gnomes and elves move into them, because they have become something better than what they started out as, something that is magical, and they are more powerful than they were. That’s what has happened here. Trust me, I know, I’m an expert.”
She darted, kneeling next to him, brushing hair from her mouth, her arm fearlessly on his shoulder, whispering.
“But what language will we speak?”
He dug into his pockets, found the crumpled scraps that he had placed there earlier.
“Here, here I have it, the last great dictionary–these are the words that belong to the fort, and are magical when they are spoken here. It is called the side-language, and the words are sharpened alongside normal people language, like a knife is sharpened on stones. They cut through it though, if you know how to use them properly.”
“That’s my…that’s my father’s handwriting.”
“He built the fort, didn’t he? He knew it would be useful for you to have when he was gone. He didn’t need it anymore, but you do, and that is why he left you these. He told me I would be his messenger. You would not know it from the look of me, but I am a secret agent of sorts, and am here to carry out the last mission in his name–and he wanted me to find these and give them to you, so now here, you have them, and we should keep them here, buried in the fort.”
“Ok, let’s bury them, but under a stone too. You get one, I’ll dig a bit.”
A stone wet with moss, purpled, whitened, greyed.
“This is perfect, a magic stone to protect the magic language. We will just put the papers into the hole, and then cover it with leaves and then the stone. We will cover it now, and we are done. You know what you’ve done? You’ve helped me? You’ve done a great heroic thing? The mission is complete. He told me he could trust you to know what to do once and you did–you showed me the fort and we made it enchanted again.”
Whispering leaves beneath feet, they said nothing into the light sheltering them in green and speckled whites and shadows furrowing the floor, and then out again, acres of air crisping in afternoon’s bright waning.
“That wasn’t too long. I just finished chopping the onion, and Elizabeth likes to help with the rest, so it’s been a pleasure meeting you today and hearing about your work and knowing that my husband’s work will go on mattering. If you could just put the notes I gave you down somewhere, I’ll return them to the table.”
“Oh, I, I don’t… I think they are on the table by the sofa still.”
“I didn’t see them there when I looked. I don’t want to end on a sour note, accusing you, but maybe you didn’t think and slipped them away into a pocket. I would just appreciate that you left them behind.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you where they are. I mean, I do not know where they are. I would not have taken them, though I assure you. I will even turn my pockets inside out. There is nothing in them. I take no offense, but I did nothing with them. I do not know where they might be.”
“To be honest, I have doubts, but I don’t see there is much I can do, now, is there? I mean, is there, really, even after accepting you into our home, and finding that I’m left regretting it? I guess that was going to happen though, and I’m taking it out on you. I hope I’m wrong. I hope it wasn’t foolish of me to have you here. Elizabeth, say goodbye to Martin. I’ll just walk you to the door.”
“I am sorry, you shouldn’t feel that way. I’m terribly sorry to make you regret anything. I admire him so deeply. I cherish his works. It has meant the world for me to see you, to see his home, to feel like I know him better now. It all seems more real somehow.”
“Bye, Martin. Thank you for making the fort strong again.”
“Goodbye, Elizabeth. Do not worry if it looks like it is falling down in the future. That is what happens to forts.”
“I’ll ask you straight up: please do not write about any of this. I take your word that you are honest. I appreciate that you care, I really do, and I think it’s only right that I take you at your word. But please, respect his memory, please do.”
“But of course, I would never…of course.”
The door turned slowly, he backed across the front porch, and turned down the steps onto gravel, into the rental car, into the soft growl of the engine, and the gravel churning beneath the wheels, the speed now greater, trees, forest on all sides, forts everywhere.