Friday, 23rd. We stayed overnight in my old apartment. I made arrangements with the lawyer to have our things packed and our furniture stored pending settlement of the estate, and then to sell everything at auction. Rafe phoned Maine to make arrangements for the interment. In the place that Norine, Melany and I shared for six years I felt very strange. I slept in my den on the couch; Cara took the master bedroom upstairs, and Rafe stayed in Melany's room.
I sat for a long while that night looking at my books — a wall of them ten feet high; my stereo set with very large speakers — a set of beautiful remote mono speakers in the living/diningroom, part of an outfit built aboard ship long ago, put together with loving c are by some of my shipmates and me: they had been reset in a neat fruitwood-stained cabinet built to match the two loaded record cabinets in the study.
My desk — antique green, a reproduction of a colonial trestle desk; my contour lounger, also green; a birdseye maple table for typing, chair to match; a great, open-mouthed crock for a wastepaper basket; a braided rug in rusty oranges, browns, yellows and greens. An antique jug, brought back from Maine one summer, on one of the record cabinets, made into a lamp; on my desk: my father's tiffany-type lamp with a Gothic, angular green glass shade. The graceful chandelier of silver metal hanging from the high ceiling; a lavatory off the room; access, through a large closet, to the front hall of the 19th-century manse that had been converted to apartments, of which we had had the largest, located in the rear.
I had locked myself in those days into my study nearly every night to write and study — perfectly private and alone. Above the studio couch there was a large pop-art painting of a headless nude secretary sitting at a typewriter — its creator a woman member of the College art department; facing it, a "construction" in wood, leather, copper, and brass over the two shelves that held more books and my stereo speakers — a bas-relief, really. I had bought it on impulse in Maine in the spring, when Norine and I had gone up to Uncle John's funeral. Although it could not be read easily, a Biblical inscription had been stamped into the copper: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and we wept when we remembered you, O Zion."
A Boston rocker.
And, in the L-shaped living/dining room: an empire couch upholstered in tapestry; wall-to-wall carpeting, and a Persian rug overlaying it in the livingroom section. I wandered about during the night, touching woods and fabrics: two Victorian gentlemen's chairs, one done in green satin, the other restored, with its original flower-figured plush: Norine's darling, since we had seen its twin at the Old Mystic Seaport museum in Connecticut.
And an oversized empire gout-chair, done over in Chinese red raised fabric. It had been given my father by some Latvian refugees he had personally sponsored for immigration after the Second World War. A large antique chest of drawers, a beehive clock with a painting on its glass panel and a quick chime — I would it and set it going, to hear the hours during the night. There were two tables: a tall refectory table that looked Medieval, but was not old, merely home-made: a spectacular piece manufactured by Norine's father, who had been a cabinet-maker. On it, a lovely, large, flower-shaped blue-glass shade with an art nouveau base; another glass-shaded lamp, yellow with delicate lead-work, stood on the chest.
The other table was relatively new: a large cherry dining table; an old, dark-oak upright piano in the end of the room, where Melany had practiced her lessons.
The "front" door that led onto a large, screened porch with flagstone floor; the yard — all our own, not the other tenants' — that swept along the side of the house and around in back; a black wrought-iron fence sealing us off from our neighbors' back yards. Truly, a good place to live in the middle of town. A farm in the country wouldn't have been much more private — even insurance salesmen had had a hard time finding us.
Now all our furnishings would go at auction, where we had bought much of it. Norine had loved things, good, solid things, and I had often felt as though she were using them to wall me in, deeper and deeper among the drawers and shawls, the paintings hung on every wall, each an original, most by artists friends in the academic life through which we had moved so easily and comfortably for ten years.
I had waked up at night sometimes, sweating, believing I was drowning in your great sleigh bed.
During the night, on one of my pilgrimages among shadows and chairs, I lighted the two aquaria that stood before the windows that looked onto the porch. There were the fish swimming in their sleep, slowly fanning the water with their transparent fins: angel fish, a glass catfish, a loach that lived in a hut made of half a coconut shell. A black "shark" with red fins nuzzled the gravel; guppies in the smaller tank, and a blue beta with red markings, his flowing tail looking like the pennant on a caravel.
I sat and watched there a long time — I had never felt at ease, except in Maine, without these silent shapes out of my childhood floating among the green water plants. I fed the fish. When they had eaten, I turned off the air pump, took a net, caught all of them, and flushed them down the toilet. I couldn't think of their starving in an empty house.
The next day, Tuesday, the 20th, Cara, Rafe, and I went to the funeral parlor and Rafe said the service. Quite a few people from the college were there — colleagues and friends. The last I had seen of some of them had been at the Labor Day picnic at the college park Most of them had known both Norine and me, and some of them remembered Cara as a student. There was no tension — all of these things had happened before at the school. In the six years we had spent here there had been many more than one divorce or separation. We could remember a young faculty wife's suicide because her husband had taken a student — the wife herself had been her husband's student at another school, and she had taken him away from his previous wife. We could remember deaths of all kinds. We knew that young faculty members of both sexes had married, or been divorced and married colleagues' wives, students, secretaries — no one seemed to blame me for what had happened. Or, if they did, nothing showed. We were formally polite, and I could see that some of our friends were genuinely sorry.
Afterwards, Rafe drove the station wagon up to the rear entrance of the funeral parlor and we put the two urns aboard. I told the undertaker the lawyer would handle the bills, and we left.
We drove relatively slowly back to the farm, and it was ten p.m. when we got back. When we drove into the dooryard we were greatly relieved — at least I was. As we had driven, I felt the burden lying heavily at my back. Rafe and Cara and I drove in shifts, and I was glad to take the wheel so that I could think about the road.
The closer we got to Frankfort, the darker the day became, and the evening, which finally thickened into night. Wesley Catch met us on the doorstep.
The next morning, at nine, October 21st, we drove the short distance to the cemetery where four men were waiting at the opening which had been dug beside Uncle John's grave. Rafe and I helped them insert the urns. There were no spectators besides Cara and Wesley Catch, who had come over the fields to join us. Rafe said, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lord, we ask you to give these souls rest." He and I both sprinkled a handful of soil, and we left the men to their work.
I have been thinking about the voices I heard when last I saw Norine and Melany. It occurs to me that they were as real as those Manoah Bodman heard when he spoke to the Principalities and Powers. They were not audible, but they rang sharply as bells in the center of my brain. I am beginning to understand that the earth is filled with voices. They speak to us everywhere, in all manners of ways. I look back through this journal, and I do not see words, I hear voices, including my own, rising out of the pages like an eternal carillon. Even when I close the book, murmurs seep out at the edges to tell me who they are and what I am.
The books in the library speak to me, ask me to open them. At my old home, in my study, on my shelves I had pasted a line from a poem: "I know the poems on my shelves speak to me in an / ancient language / I have somehow forgotten." And in looking through the old scrapbook Norine sent me out of the past I find three voices in a short paragraph: that of a child who was somehow once myself, that of my mother, and an echo belonging to the Nameless:
HIS SISTER'S GHOST
As told to me by my Mother.
A man went out to the cottage of his dead sister. On the porch stood several milk-bottles. Suddenly, in the garden, a gray apparition appeared and walked slowly toward him. He recognized the form as that of his dead sister. He then picked up a milk bottle and threw it at the ghost. It disappeared and he was not again bothered.
I have been reading Bodman's Oration on Death again. He had yet another terrible struggle, which I will omit here except for some short passages that give a glimpse of Bodman's family in the midst of this turmoil:
My father and brother being a little distance from the house, taking down an old building, my brother came in first, I believe, and my father afterwards, and requested me to go out and divert my mind with what they were about; which I engaged, and intended to do.
But Satan intervened once more.
During this period of distress, the family were called up, and were much alarmed at my situation. This was in the dead of night; and it appeared to me that Satan would immediately tear me in pieces; which he seemed to threaten to do; and I was really afraid it would take place before the morning light. — My mother standing by my bedside, it now appears to me, was earnest in prayer — she asked me if I could pray for myself? when, I believe, I made an attempt to pray. But still I was afraid to have my brother leave the chamber, for fear I should be torn to pieces in his absence.
Tomorrow I must do some more on my novel. I must. Cara has given me some Bryony Water to help me sleep. I can no longer make love.
The Book of the Black Heart
Chapter Five: The Gunner's Story
It was the Gunner's mount the sailors were using that night to spin their sea stories on, as the carrier plowed through the star-bitten Pacific, and it was the Gunner's turn.
"Looking back on things," he said, "I guess life had been pretty good, at least for me, until my old man kicked the bucket. I might've even been able to live with that if I hadn't found out how he died one night when my mother thought I was asleep and got yakking to her best friend, somebody she'd known since she was in school.
"Dad used to take me out to the lake for a day's fishing. We'd float around out there, just dangling our lines and hauling in the black bass. When we got tired we'd lie back in the bottom of our big, flat-bottomed scow, pull our straw hats down over our eyes, and let the sun beat down on us. Man, that was the life. We'd be stripped to the waist and sweating like horses. I could feel the sun soothing the muscles where they ached from being bent over the side of the boat. The smell of the fish we'd caught mixed with the pinewood smell of the scow. It was sort of like a nice form of ether and made me doze off.
"Every now and then a shore breeze would blow by, and we could smell the woods that bordered the lake. The breeze would rumple around our heads for a few minutes, and just as we'd be getting used to it, it would stop and the sun would beat down as hard as ever.
"Once in a while a horsefly would buzz around me and finally decide to land. You have to slap 'em fast or they get away and pretty soon come back to pester you again.
"After a while the breezes would start to come up more often and the sides of the boat would block off the sun, and we'd know it was time to go home. Dad would row all the way to shore while I sat and watched the last of the sun glint on his skin. There would be purple splotches in the sky over the wood, and the ripples in the water were gold.
"I was always first out of the scow. I'd sprint over the side, splash into the water, and wade the last few feet to the beach. The sand felt good. And then I'd watch Dad as he got our gear out of the boat and walked toward me. Before he caught up with me I'd stretch till I felt my bones creak, and then lead the way along the path through the woods.
We had to walk along this pine-needle path to get to Dad's jalopy. Sometimes we'd stop and listen to the wind in the big trees, or look for animals or birds. Sometimes there was a stray bee on its last trip back to the hive.
"But then he died. I was there when they brought him in off the lake. After that I used to have a hard time getting to sleep. I'd go to bed and just lay there listening to my heard pump blood. If my mom checked on me I'd keep my eyes closed and make like I was in Dreamland.
"One night I heard my mother in the hall whispering to somebody, and then she opened the door a crack and I heard her say, 'Doesn't he look cunning, all curled up in bed like that? Oh, you wouldn't believe what an imp he can be sometimes, not when you see him like this, the little angel. You'd never believe he has bad dreams sometimes, poor dear, ever since his dad died in that accident.' I heard her sigh.
"'Poor Sally,' her friend said — I think her name was Smith, Alice Smith. 'You've had a hard life, but it's coming out all right, isn't it? You've hooked another one, haven't you? That's why I dropped in. I'm dying to hear all about it.'
"'Oh, all right,' I heard mom giggle. 'But you've got to promise never to tell anybody. Some people might misunderstand, but I know you won't. I stirred. 'Sshh,' she whispered. "Come into the living room before he wakes up. Honestly, I never get a minute to myself any more. Come on. I'll tell you how I reeled him in.'
"When they closed the door again I got up and snuck out to the hall. I heard them in the living room, so I eased on down to the doorway and listened.
"'Beer?' mom asked, 'or something stronger?"
"'Stronger,' Mrs. Smith said. I chanced a look around the corner and I could see them sitting sideways to me. I could see Alice was all ears. 'What's he like?' she asked.
"'Oh, he's great!' Mom got up to mix martinis. 'He's a big brute of a fella, with fat freckled cheeks and a grin as wide as a pound of bacon. Rrrufff!'
"'Tell me more! Where'd you meet him?' Alice took her drink as mom settled into the scatter pillows on the couch. She rolled her eyes and faked a look around her for spies. I ducked.
"'Don't tell a soul, now promise?' Alice gave a nod full of quick breaths. 'Actually,' mom said in what was supposed to be a low voice, 'I met him before big Mark died. Oh! He swept me right off my feet one day at Danny's Lunch downtown. He just up and sat down at my table — the place was crowded, and the next thing I knew, his knees were nudging me so cute-like while we ate our noodle soup. Oh,' she laughed, 'he's such a card. Just like a little boy, even though he's so big.' She rolled her eyes again. I sat down on the floor in the hall and didn't look at them any more.
"'Goodness, that's so romantic,' Alice Smith said. I could imagine her teats bobbing and her face flushing. I didn't have to see. 'How I envy you!' she said in little breaths.
"'Till then I'd just been feeling like any old sack. Mark never paid any attention to me, you know. All he ever wanted to do was take junior fishing. Honestly. Two ten-year-olds in the house was too much.' She giggled again and was quiet while she sipped her drink. In the corner the teevee belched and flickered — I could see the shadows coming out into the hall. Then mom said, 'So, while my two boys were out fishing, Harry would come visit me. I fell for him hook, line, and sinker.
"'Well, this went on for about a month. I was getting about ready to get a lawyer when what should happen one day but Mark — big Mark I mean — walked in the door early from work.'
"'No' said Mrs. Smith. I took a quick peek — the one eye I could see what as big and bright as a light bulb.
"'Oh, yes,' said mother, 'and there we were all over the parlor rug, my skirts up around my hips and Harry huffing all over me, snorting like a....'" The Gunner stopped a minute to listen to the sea. Then, "Bull," he said.
"'In a minute it was all over,' mom told Mrs. Smith. 'Mark got all red in the face and Harry got up. He was laughing. Oh, he knows how to take things. He zipped himself up and got ready for a fight.'
"'Then what happened?' I heard Mrs. Smith gasp.
"'Nothing. Mark just walked over to the closet and got his rod and things.'
"'Rod and reel.' Mom was quiet for another second. Then, '"I'm going fishing," Mark said. In his business suit, no less. '"In your business suit?" I asked. By this time I was decent again. But he didn't answer. He just walked to the door and out, and that's the last I saw of him.'
"'Alive, anyhow.' I heard mom sip her drink and saw the flare of her lighter as she lit a cigarette. 'After big Mark left, about ten minutes later, maybe, little Mark came in just as Harry was about to leave. He just barely missed us finishing up the job big Mark had interrupted. I think he suspected something anyhow. He gave Harry a funny look and said, "Pop home yet?" I told him he'd gone fishing.
"Without me?" Then he was out the door like a flash.' "I got up and went back to my room then," the Gunner said. "I slammed the door — I didn't give a shit if they heard me. Mom came in 'What was that door slamming?' she asked me, but I didn't answer. I just kept laying on the bed staring and remembering that day. I don't know how long mom stood there asking me how much I heard, I didn't even do anything when she shook me and bounced me up and down in the bed and slapped me. She finally stopped screaming and crying, and after a while there was the lake again, and it was late in the afternoon. something was wrong. I'd been running, or maybe pedaling my bike. I don't know how I got to the lake, because it was quite a way — I just knew I had to catch up.
"By the time I was standing on the strip of beach I could feel the night starting to come on — the moon was already up flopping around in the tops of the pines like a sunfish. My legs hurt, and I couldn't breathe — it was like there was water in my chest. I looked for our scow, and it was out there, but there was something funny about it. And then I saw — it was upside-down, and there were a bunch of heads bobbing around it, and another boat. I started in to yell, 'Dad! Dad!' but nobody paid me any attention. Only when I took off my shoes and started to run into the water somebody grabbed me and said, 'Stay here, boy. They'll have him soon.'
"But the moon was high before they brought him in, all soggy, and his eyes staring at me in the dark. His feet were all wound up in line and his metal gear box was caught in the line too. They all just stood around and looked at him, and sometimes they'd look at me too, and then away. I waited for something to happen, but nobody did anything. 'Why don't you all do something? Help him, help him! Jesus!' I said, but they all just shook their heads.
""'It's no use, son. He's been down there for three hours anyway, ' somebody said, a cop I think. 'The ambulance will be here soon.'
"But I looked at him and I saw something. 'No, no, he's alive, don't you see?' I said. 'Look, his heart's beating, his heart...'
"I managed to rip away from the guy that was holding me, and I fell down beside Dad and put my ear on his chest. I could feel it. His heart thumping, almost jumping out of his chest, trying to keep going. It was slimy wet against my ear, it was wriggling and squirming, even though you could see his face was beginning to bloat and it was all blue. I hugged him and looked up at them all standing around. 'Oh, Jesus, won't you help him!' I screamed. 'Look, his heart!' I tore open his shirt, still with his tie on.
"And you could see it squirming and wiggling, see it with your naked eyes, — a fish caught in his undershirt, a big black bass, fighting to cut loose but losing, its head stuck out near the armpit, its bulgy eyes like to moons staring down at me out of the sky, out of the pines that reeled off into a dark voice that said, 'I wonder what mom will say when we get home for supper.' And then no more dreams, nothing," said the Gunner, "except night and the smell of pine."