THE BOOK OF THE BLACK HEART
Chapter One: The City
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with child, and the word was the child. "Nothus" was the last thing his mother said before she died in childbirth, so Nothus became his name, Nothus Doe, son of Jane, father unknown — that is to say, even less known than his sole female relative. When she was buried in Potter's Field they took off her toe tag, and this became his heirloom, which eventually he had embalmed in plastic and wore about his neck as a concrete referent to genealogy, however tenuous.
His existence thus certified both by the attending physician and the coroner, Nothus grew up an existentialist, though it is doubtful that he would have so categorized himself — doubtful even that he would have heard the word, given the walk of his life, for Nothus had had a rough row to hoe and tough seed to sow. His milieu was the back alleys of life and the city. Under his shock of red hair there were few ideas and many ploys, a paucity of thoughts, but wiles in plenty wiring his synapses together in a network of survival instincts. Daily urban warfare was second nature to him.
Thus, it was to a degree significant, if not wholly wondrous, that Nothus was in a single aspect of his being an idealist, for he had accepted a quest — or, rather, had bowed beneath the weight of the quest fate had thrust upon him: he wished to know who he was, not essentially, but really. Who were his immediate forebears? Who, in fact, was his mother, let alone his father? For he had heard that "It is a wise child that knows its father." Nothus was already a wise guy, why not, therefore, a wise child and, later still, a wise man?
He bore his burden fretfully. He stood, hands raised over his head, bearing the weight of the buildings. His legs twisted his feet into the sidewalk. His eyes burned under the neon siege — Nothus could not follow the motion of the road driving between facades that cut space into rectangles and squares.
Nothus was his name, then. Was that sure? Was that a fact, or was it true that Nothus was no man's name? Had he just entered Broad Street from that door there, four fronts from the corner of St. Cloud? Or did he imagine the hall leading to his apartment? It was not easy, he decided, to believe in a place once it has been left behind.
"For sure, then, let's make believe all of this is," he said wavering among the images of stone and iron. "All right, then, this is someone's city, let's say. Whose? And who is the One?" In his mind there were faces and figures swimming in a vat of silence. His mother — had he a mother? — vacillated between being and seeming.
Only one thing to do, then, if he were to see this picture clearly. Nothus sought out the establishment of the famous Gypsy seeress, Madame Sostostris of ancient name and fame. In her crystal palace the ancient dame sat before her tapestries of silk and Velcro, suns, moons, and planets hung above her revolving for all the world as though they were the universe; sat before her ball of bluest and deepest crystal waiting to have her palm crossed with silver at the very least, but perhaps more hopefully with the long green of professional golfers of the first water.
Nothus seated himself before her. "I have come to you, O most notable of scriers, for the purpose of...."
But she interrupted him. "Need you tell me what you have come to me for?" she asked, shaking woefully her beturbaned cranium. "Come, cross my palm," said she, “and we shall see what we shall see." And Nothus did as he was bidden — he made the sign of the cross upon her palm, touching as he did so her life line and her love line. "Now then," said Madame Sosostris, "I need an appurtenance, something that belonged unequivocally to your life-giver, your nurturer, in effect, Jane Doe."
And Nothus rose to the occasion, for he passed across the card table the plasticized toe tag that had been his heritage since day one of the rest of his life. The good Madame took it gingerly, placed it in her left palm, and raised it until it rested flat against her forehead. Then she bent forward to gaze into her ball of blue glass and bade Nothus do likewise. And this is what they saw:
There in the family glass his father's teeth materialized for a moment. His brother's hand reached out of his mother's sleeve to take a baseball bat, a glove. All their features merged. His father's eyes peered out of a Bible — he was a preacher! Christ's blood stained his temple; a Sunday School teacher closed his cover and mounted the pulpit to drop pennies down the baptismal fount. A sea of faces was ordered in undulating rows of pews. In front of Kresge's five-and-dime Nothus saw his brother Nothus — Nothus was his name! Is that sure? Or is it true that Nothus is no man's name? — standing and listening to the glare of sticky spoons, straws sucking communion grape juice out of paper cones.
"Was that truly my brother?" Nothus asked Madame Sosostris, and she shook her head.
"Not your brother," she said, "your twin. That was you in another life, the life you would have led had you not led this one. Peer closely and you will find yourself as you should have been in the proper element, in the orderly retreat, in the Eye of God had he not blinked."
Nothus was himself person of that parish. His hands, lifted to pull glorianas out of the sky that cracked like bad plaster, were instead tangled in chains of construction paper and Della Robbia berries that festooned the Holy Stable. Nothus moved his lips, parted them, made his jaw widen to say the Word — instead, the organ issued from his throat and toppled into the hands of the gathered ushers.
They were dressed in tinseled burlap. One was Sir Galahad carrying a box of candy; one was the King of Africa mounted on a camel made of alloy; one was a man in a business suit collecting pennies in a tray of straw. They bore away frankincense and myrrh, and the smell of gasoline in a dark garage.
The barrel organ had a handle that was turned by a chimpanzee wearing hair and a red cap. The parishioners closed their pockets, stared into their hymnals, were driven down the aisles in a golf cart by a man dressed in crimson flannels, crossed oars sewn to his blazer pockets.
Nothus could look no longer. "Excuse me," he said to Madame Sosostris, "but I have seen as much of my family as I can undertake to digest for the time being. I shall return, but meanwhile, the buildings of the city will fall unless I return to the streets that are the seat of my strength." He rose, bowed, and left the old Gypsy to her own devices.
What time did Nothus keep coiled there on the tight skin just above his wrist's joint? He brought his arms down, slowly — the buildings waggled but remained above him, pelting down soot and glare. He breathed and looked: the hands, beneath their flat wall of crystal, spun through the hours, unable to fix on a stable point.
The hooks had been worn from the numbers that snaked and wormed beneath the double whips of catch-as-catch-can. He seized on a moment, turned it into a neighborhood in the morning rising out of the horizon as though it had nothing better to do than start some child's day. Nothus had become his brother, Nothus.
"Where do I know these shop fronts and popsicle wrappers speckling the walks?" Nothus stepped among the windows of nostalgia, musing and darkling. The slat-frame tenements, some with a cat on a strip of earth looking out for the family dog through the spokes of a rusty trike between the weedy steps and the feet of passers-by, the phone poles growing their vines straightway through the leafless breeze scuttling newsprint along the street, the grainy shingles knocked up underneath some old living room turned into a grocery store where all the cornflakes hosted banqueting black specks that scattered in the bowl long after the rustling had stopped — these he remembered as out of a crystal kept in fog...on the card table of Madame Sosostris.
"There is a lady I know here somewhere," Nothus said. "She is bent over a tub that has a wheel driven by an antique washer motor, and there is a grinding of ice and sugar and flavoring, but she gives no samples of her lemon-ice, for her husband sits grizzling somewhere behind a curtain behind a counter nearly empty of candy behind a position long since assumed behind a mask made of spaghetti and red wine and the lies he was told concerning the pavement of this new Eden before he and his tremendous signora stepped off the boat to find the fortune to be found in an antique motor and a tub and ice and sugar and lemons and paper cups one can squeeze and mirabile dictu! throw away on the summer sidewalk outside where all the kids collect, as on a day such as this, maybe to play ball or break a window and 'Make-a them buy the jumbos if you can because-a we need.'"
Nothus! — or was it Nothus? — went down the block a little way and there found old Ercole the butcher spraying lamb chops out from under his snicker-snee as though he were some charnel potentate mucking his way to glory through the ribs of his enemies.
Underfoot the going was unsteady — the floor was a beach of shavings that slid like a wooden tide against the watery metal and the watery glass of the transparent mountain sheltering a museum of entrails and carrion. Ercole rose, stained as Judas' mustache, from behind the chopping block, laid down a fistful of meat. His belly did a ponderous waltz as he lifted his happy hacker. The bow of his apron tied off his rump where a man's back should start above the buttocks. His slab face was a gorgeous lividry. "Ah, Ercole," Nothus cried, gay to be in a homing place, "you are cartoonish you are so real! My mouth waters for you! Your eyes are so certain beneath that baldness surrounding your swirl of forelock that I can see my image in your pupil. This is safety, a good thing in a small world. You feed us!"
"Yah, kid, have some chips and lemme alone. I got work." He moved toward the coldroom door. His ham appeared in a frame of polished oak. Nothus stared — a forest of meat ate Ercole. The cattle, growing downward like stalactites from the roof of snow, ogled the monster parading among them. Their soft lips nibbled his thighs, and their eyes were full of savory thoughts that rolled downward among a mound of kidneys which he mounted. Having come into his own at last, Ercole, his head moving among the clouds of frost, gathered in cutlets and roasts, chops and steaks, loins and filets, climbed down and walked steaming out of the crystal cave. He spread his bounty in the great cases of his shop and he brimmed with only small malice while he murmured, "Goddamn. Goddamn priest's kid. Always hangin' around for a handout. Just like his dad. Here, kid, here's a free thing...." A hand within a hand, severed at the joint, holding a heart made of cellophane. The lettering: Kingdom Come Potato Chips. Mfd. in U.S.A. Made from pure....
Sunday, 13th. Flash and dissolve — the Street again. The church on the corner floating in white wood. Some urchin sang on the steps swinging on the gate of wire and silver tubing. The grass greened in the big lot — the whole holy Word clapboarded astraddle the corner where wop and kraut collided in a melee of huge elms and No Parking signs: of two worlds at least. The whispers had it that these renegade Protestant Eyetalians were holy rollers. The funny little Sicilian priest wanted to marry some Mayflower queen. They drank real blood in those little shot glasses. They hired a band to praise the Lord.
"Let's see you spit on the stairs," somebody said to Nothus, another kid, a bigger one. "You're scared, punk. Your old man eats snails. Where do you people keep the snakes you kiss on Sunday?"
Down in that lung, down there in that cavern of air, in that gray mass of wheezing sacs, yes, under the pulsating cage of bone spindle Nothus could feel it rising in Nothus' chest — the mucous rummaging for more space. It could squeeze the heart, make it palpitate, turn his lips into a hose nozzle straining to inhale the wind. If Nothus tried, Nothus felt, some of it would come up, would wind past the apple that clogged his throat, would rise and spurt like a yellow pearl to lie glistening on God's ladder: it — this smashed eye that knew his crimson center — stared blindly up at the foot that came down in rage and fear. Nothus, stumbling, mewling like some sack of dying animals, trekked past the dirt grin that spread over some triumph or other, the exultation of small grime that guarded the gate which closed slowly, growing as it did so into pylons and pillars that smoothened into a stately forbidding. The church widened to encompass all that was other than this deed. A child, vaguely familiar, said "Nothus" and opened the vestibule doors, climbed a marble cross that was certainly pine before this basilica grew up, and draped himself smugly over the crosstimber. He hung there smiling and eating small cubes of communion bread coated with powdered sugar. No force closed the doors, but they closed anyway, and there was silence.
I wrote all day yesterday, and this morning. Today, the writing came easily, but yesterday it was Iike madness, like pulling a demon out of my guts. I quit at midnight, exhausted, and fell into bed. I have taken the large western bedroom upstairs, with its table, chest of drawers, wardrobe, and hallseat-with-mirror, and I thought I would drop into, dream as though into a well.
But, though my head was bursting, as soon as it was on the pillow I began to hear the night. It was then that I missed Catch from the foot of the bed, He can get in and out of the house at will, through a tear in the screening of the porch and the door from the dining room onto the porch, which I prop open a little with an antique flatiron. Today, Catch still is missing.
Filling his absence last night was the sound of the brook flowing past the ruined mill. At first I thought I'd left the water running in the kitchen. I lay in bed, staring out of darkness through the south window of my room, and watched the blue spruces looming against the sky — we had the "brighter heaven" Mr. Salmon spoke of. Occasionally a bat would flicker against a star as I lay watching.
For the first time, too, I noticed all the sounds of the house. I heard what must be squirrels scuttling overhead, and it occurred to me I hadn't yet been up attic. There were peculiar flutterings in the fireplace, which initially I thought must be the wind blowing over the chimney, but there was no wind. Then I realized the sounds were the wingbeats of chimney swifts nesting in the flue — I had heard they sometimes raise two broods in a single summer. It must be so.
I heard the sounds of the house timbers, too, and the creakiness in the walls. At last I got up and, in the dark, went out to the hall and sat down in a chair in my "library." My head began to clear almost immediately. My thoughts turned in all directions. I reached out my hands and touched the leather spines I couldn't see. It was almost as though calm flowed out of them into my fingers and blood.
I saw myself, sitting there in a house where my mother's ancestors had sat, writing a book, hemmed in by books on three sides. All things were one thing — past end future — the present might as well have been ahead as behind. My book might be about the confusions of the world, the terrors of this very day and this very flesh, but they would pass, and nothing would change. Whatever I might suffer by pen and paper would come to the same thing eventually: voices locked in ancient darkness on shelves in shadow.
I sat there a long time. And then I went back into my room and slept.
When I woke, I ate a little, wrote some more. So far, I know where I am going. But the next stint will be harder, for I must give a true account of Nothus. So far, he is an abstraction. I'll have to wait a while to let the well fill again.
In one of the pigeonholes of Uncle John Putnam's desk I've found a bundle of eight letters, some of them still in their envelopes, and all dating from the late 1850's and early 1860's. They are addressed to Charles Putnam, who vas my great-grandfather, and signed by Wesley Court, who had moved from Frankfort to Lowell, Massachusetts. I've put the letters into chronological order, but decided not to read them all at once.