Wednesday
Oct102012

The House Enters the Street

By Gretchen E. Henderson


 

Starcherone Books
September 2012
978-0983740513


 

 

Ut queant laxis

 

She’s going home. Not straight away, crow dart-of-a-black-arrow going home, but a curvaceous, loopy, round-about, colorful waving (good-bye, hello, good-) course of going home, not by plane, train, coach or car, but by foot through labyrinthine halls and echoing galleries, where marble athletes lack legs, hands, noses (breathing); floor-to-ceiling canvases, blue nudes & strung guitars, head-dressed gazelles with locked horns, beaded earflaps, iron mudfish in pendant masks (breathing). Like a whorled conch, murmuring: voyeurs whisper, stare and bend to listen (knees crack, she hears, shuffling and Look!) to incisions and scars—what doesn’t speak is broken (between each line & curve) echoes: 

This is what happens when there is space & time & hope, she thinks, listening while walking among pedestals & glass cases with palmette finials, rearing maned horses, carved paws on lotus leaves beside bronze belly guards (“Aisonidas, the son of Kloridios, took this”), dolphin-riding hoplites (“foot soldiers”), flute players, incised choruses, bronze & terracotta sphinxes perched on horizontal flanges, greaves (“shin guards”) & spears & water jars & kernos (“the receptacles probably contained foodstuffs of various kinds, perhaps also flowers”), pomegranates on oil lamps, stelae depicting ravens & a leaping white fox, an omen to decipher, as it races down a horse’s back on an architectural frieze between a colonnade & funerary monument, with two lines of dactylic hexameter, expressing grief over death in a pattern called boustrophedon (“ox-turning”) because the text turns at the end of each line, right to left in alteration, as oxen turn a plough at each furrow’s end, zigzagging like she coils through echoing galleries & labyrinthine halls, among pedestals and glass cases—she: the one among statues and foreign tongues, the one who’s going home:

But it’s not as easy as that. Home is where the heart is, so the saying goes, and though hers beats somewhere inside this cavity, tangled muscles and twisting bones have made it hard for the pulse to be heard, while she tries to move in dreams over mountains, fording streams & oceans to sail to new ports. She feels history on her back like a weight, but a load that needs to be borne, over mountains & rivers & oceans, like the dream of an old barefoot man with a sac-cloth of apple seeds, who thought the world would be better when branches tangled toward sun & grew fruit—like she believes, if she takes seeds (not knowing even which kind they are), if she scatters them across the earth, the old myth may come to life again, once upon a time, ever after—if she reaches out her hand to yours, and you take what she offers and swallow seeds, a tree will grow inside you, and you will bear fruit.

 

Solve polluti

 

It was all about the fruits of labors, not only on land: at sea. Faar’s life began at sea. Waves rolled outside his window. He watched watery horizons. His father had disappeared on a voyage to terra incognita, where horned narwhales swam under ice, where profit lulled into frozen floes. The young Faar began to dream of cloud lagoons, bellied sails, and wind. The wayfaring trait had been inherited. He decided to wander. 

 Cousins on the other side of the world sent him a letter to marry their eldest daughter: S-v-a-n H-a-r-d-tI-o-w-a, they wrote, without mentioning the distance between bordering seas. Faar assumed oceans existed near their home. He was young, then. By ship, he departed with dried apple seeds, an overcoat, compass, and words: fjords, bøndegard, fisker. Heading toward Hardts, he arrived ashore and rode a box that made its own clouds. Smokestacks puffed from tracks that led to black barren soil. Land spread, gaunt and gleaned. 

It was April. The Hardt’s wooden barn jutted against a flat farm and overgrown sky: a first sight that made the young man lonely. He felt anchored between one ocean and another, moored, because his new family lived land-locked. They did not feel the pull of tides. 

Or so he guessed. It was barely spring. He married the girl from the letter: SvanSvan e Lars Röne. Seeds were planted in earth and watered for growth. Rains came, thundering. Days after storms, sun rifled tufts to make fields glimmer like oceans. Stalks drowned in rows. The barn’s body hid, with its roof sailing like an upside-down skiff.

Slowly, Faar grew to love his inland sea. Liquid layers seeped into his dreams and yielded new sights Faar had not imagined. At harvest, he shucked closed ears. The land was deheaded and foddered, and new tides advanced. White, heavy drifts whirled and moaned; snow packs coiled in frozen crests. Other winds carried fresh-fall like foam, like white spiders flung to the wind, unfurling blanched gossamer strands. Flakes met drifts and covered everything: the fields, barn, trees whose branches stretched bare, then budded, above snowdrops and crocuses. Movements continued, all four seasons, after he reaped roots for Svan so she grew into Mor: with the birth of their datters.

There were three datters: Eva, Una, Holde. Three in one, one in three. Born the same day. The year was 1910. Before the girls knew words were w-o-r-d-s, Faar cradled them and chanted language that grew from fjords and fisker, krapp sjø and tun sjø—choppy, short waves; hard, heavy water. He described drawings on cave walls: ships and Ymir, Odin, Thor. He told of trolls, elves, giants, vetter, draugens, sprites who swam in the sea, and witches who dressed as insects and held possessions to make owners victims. The Giant who Had No Heart in His Body hid his separated soul in common objects: an egg, a duck, a well, an island, a far-off lake.

When the triplets grew to realize losses could be found, they sought hidden bits of the Giant’s heart—estranged in tree stumps, jars, nests, and ponds. More than blood and bones, Faar’s stories made the datters realize their watery composition, which could pulse this or that to the surface, or bear things away, in this new-found sea. 

Losses were always waiting to be found: buried under deheaded corn stalks, stored in the cellar with Mor’s preserves, nested in knotholes of trees whose roots suckled groundwater. Roots rerouted the girls, as stories transformed their senses: sights into sounds, touches into smells, tastes into colors. In summer’s heat-blazed roads, mirages revealed liquid horizons and conjured the taste of tears. New senses ripened with each new connection: this with that; here to there; before with after. Life with death. 

The girls were born on the same day, same year. That suggested a pattern. But everything didn’t follow the same course. Holde, the third of the three, died at four years. She tried to comfort a rabid fox in a corncrib, and its teethmarks led her to follow its fits and foaming. The family had no Forget-me-nots (bright blue or white, arranged in a curving spike; a remedy against serpent bites, syphilis, and mad dogs) to feed her dying mind. Her shroud was a little black frock, tucked in a tight pine box built by Faar. She died in winter, and her body remained in a corner of the barn by the stenched pigpen, until the ground thawed and spring popped through snow.

To the remaining sisters, the loss of their likeness was the loss of part of themselves. They had been one in three, three in one, and could exist only in proportion. The triplets became twins to those who observed them, in name only, because their dead sister split her spirit between them. How else could everything be explained? Holde hid the rest of herself in tree stumps, jars, nests, and bones.

 

Ut queant laxis

 

Captioned in galleries (she glimpses), the sun is halved in one painting and elsewhere shines whole, above the horizon line. Placards refer back and forth, where curators planned a course through display after display, on podiums behind glass lit indirectly: YOU ARE HERE. In the Seljuk Period. She finds herself (breathing) at a fork in the road, beside chess pieces (complete save for a single pawn, “check-mate” from sha-mat, “I give up,” Iran XII century AD), queens & rooks, square by square, once maneuvered for kingdoms and princesses, beside an elderly couple who hovers over the explanation, whispering, So that’s where and when it began (as if beginnings are singular; as if knowing makes a difference; as if chansons shaped like hearts mean more than unrecorded words): 

Where did it begin, & with whom? 

Round and round, she goes among Rustam & Isfandiyar & Simurgh & Firdausi & Demotte & pedar & madar & baradar (Faar & Mor & Eva & Una & Avra & You ) who seep from fired tiles & calligraphed niches & woven carpets, all tangled together like vines in a jungle—she tries to read the webs of script, to unravel their stories. She’s looking for an inroad, to follow any beginning that can be traced from here & back again, re-raveled with other beginnings as endings, not hidden but revealed to suggest what came before with after. I need to hear this music inside, she thinks, What resides in bodies, like houses shelter (rooms, “stanzas,” constituting homes on ever-covered foundations)? How did all come to be, worlds, every day dawning, sinking into dusk and rising again, granted and taken for blessed, or cursed? 

In the middle of the gallery, she pauses (among those who come to go, enticed by Michelangelo) & thinks: Where am I, who everything fills with wonder, which often brings euphoria, but sometimes makes her sad. She cares too much, she’s been told, for love of living, for love of loving; for love of visiting shimmering miniaturist paintings from the epic Shahnama, so fine and detailed, painted with brushes made from hair on the bellies of squirrels and kittens, & calligraphy sweeping like Shivac arms in a penumbra of fiery dance; for love of circumambulating galleries like gated chambers of a temple, & of navigating hope by love—the possibility of beginning anew:

Homing: Honing: Home:

 

Solve polluti

 

Home. They were moving. Homing. It was hard to know where, exactly, because they were on a journey. West from the Midwest, Eva and Una followed Mor and Faar, and went where they were told. They left behind fields that glimmered like oceans in summer, where in winter Faar’s barn hid under snow so its roof sailed like an upside-down skiff at sea. 

It was summer now. Beyond cornfields, sandy hills came first in the distance. Rivers roamed. Cranes congregated in lavender-green marshes. The birds danced on spindly legs and flew toward clouds. Watching them disappear, the four-year-olds smelled displaced brine, feeling the pull of tides without knowing the War-to-End-All-Wars was spreading across oceans.

Onward, in fields of sage-stock, the girls found grains ground with ghost-blue shells. One shell was whole and didn’t belong. Without a whatnot shelf in their migrating home, the sisters carried it: cradled it in joined palms, held it between their ears, listened with reverence to its sighs. The sounds washed delicately, like a dove’s elusive coo. They tried with patience to understand and become susceptible to the quiet call. Summoning sounds, they continued west toward sunset, holding the coiled calcium to their ears, waiting for they knew not what. Una and Eva combined what they heard; their lives grew ever more composite.

Above a dry inland sea, pelicans, storks, and gulls flew. The sisters listened to their shell and felt a need to dig. They had no stick to direct their course, but their fingers sifted to caress grainy clusters. Deeper, deeper. Unearthing pebbles and scum, they found a bone. It was from the pelvis of some forgotten creature, bleached and worn. The girls didn’t dig deeper to find the rest of a body. Their satisfaction was singular. A bone wasn’t yet specified as attached to another. Eva and Una put it with their shell, not for that to summon sound, but rather because both objects had been lost like Holde and might hold her hidden heart.

Traveling under clouds like sails, the family bypassed plains and peaks, navigating west and north. The last leg of their journey brought them to a valley. The family settled in an abandoned farmhouse, in an abandoned orchard. In those first difficult days, the girls yearned for sleep so bread and molasses might come to them in dreams, without ration. Deprivation carved their senses, as Faar and Mor foraged for food and water. Mor collected rootstalks and berries. On a charred hearth, Faar browned fish on flames. Eva and Una picked meat off thinly branched bones, between sips of spruce tea. 

The sisters missed home. They wanted to return. Between star-hushed nights, something or someone kept them safe enough to stay. One-thousand-and-one feet above the sea, rattlers hid under blackberry brambles and could have bitten, but bushes provided only beads of sweet juice. Poison oak scrambled up rocks and trees and also could have afflicted. But the red-and-green ternate leaves entwined lilies with congeniality, without threat.

Slowly, Faar patched the decrepit farmstead, the bøndegard, as autumn descended and brought a wild harvest.  The sisters splashed in leaves, crimson and gold, among fallen fruits. They looked for pairs, like they appeared: twin wild plums, twin acorns, twin berries, twin nuts, twin almonds. There was an old wive’s tale about twin fruits, twin children, and second sight, which the girls had not yet learned; nor did they know that in another time and place, twin girls and their mothers were killed because it was believed that a man could not plant more than one seed. In this time and place, the girls ate heartily in ignorance, unappreciative of their luxurious survival.

A fruit that they had not seen before—in the shape of a bloated heart, plump like an apple but pumpkin-orange—grew on one of the trees outside the window. Faar had no word for it and adopted the classification that a neighbor offered: per-sim-mon. The girls learned its name and rolled the syllables over their tongues. Its skin was leathery and tough, its leaves stiff and brittle. 

They learned to wait for the orbs to ripen, placing them in basins with apples and pears until each softened and lost its pucker. Skinning and slicing the fresh flesh, they put it on their tongues to slither down their throats. Mor boiled the surplus and stirred its bubbling pulp into jam; with eggs, milk, walnuts, and raisins into persimmon pudding; into biscuits that steamed when the sisters broke open hot crusts at the same moment.

There were also pies combining persimmons with fruits from the orchards. The farm grew epler, päerer, aprikøs, and vølnøtter on gnarled trees. Some trunks had holes for hiding found objects: the shell and bone from the in-land seas, yarn and needles, and wrappers from candy, which the family could afford only at Christmas. 

When Faar pruned trees, branch stubs seemed like fists shaking at parched clouds. Roots lay shallow from drought and sucked sustenance only from the surface. Mor made the twins dig for water together, as if they might find twice as much. “The devil works through idle hands,” she repeated in their shared tongue, when the datters didn’t keep their fingers busy. Her industrious digits knitted sweaters, socks, scarves, mittens, and hardanger. In I-o-w-a, Mor had raised her own sheep and woven wool with shuttles, marrying wefts and warps. Her loom was left behind when the family moved West, but every item made by Mor was meant to last. 

While Mor mended, the girls helped Faar sow fields. Days were work, but nights the datters wandered with him away from the house, to look for stars. Faar knew legends of the constellations from his faar before him, looked for Auriga through a telescope ordered from Sears & Roebuck, and told the story of the goat who carried twins and looked for shipwrecked sailors. He also had ordered a seed scope, to see the grains of his crops and to show his girls miniature worlds. It didn’t matter what was magnified, he said, as long as his datters knew that everything could be perceived up close, not only en vei, from multiple points of view.

Eva and Una received their own scope, called ka-lei-do, which was pebbled with color and twistable: stars of green, rinsed red and gold. Splintering shapes mixed together, overlapped, made new hues and forms, and transformed the world the viewers knew. Their eyes needed time to adjust and absorb each reconfiguration, which was new only because the sisters hadn’t known it before and so did not take it for granted. 

New sights were like that. They introduced contrasts and definitions. They distinguished wonders: awe from horror, grief from joy.

 

Ut queant laxis

 

Galleries don’t seem to end—opening into another, way leads to way, into way—she’s been here often enough to know she could stay for life and not see everything (could have been yesterday, taped and braced, she was here among dismembered statues but disguised by turtlenecks and gloves, so no one would have noticed, as they read about Apollo chasing Daphne, who branched into a tree, or Daphnis picking a love-apple) navigating galleries, the park, sky, streets that lead to a key in the lock—she anticipates all, after being released from work early, after admitting “I give up”—after taking time (if nothing else) into her hands, to circumambulate the Met before meeting him at:

(Home.)

She recalls his smile, when he’d said, Do you know what I love about you? 

She’d said nothing.

He’d said, You have that capacity. To change. You allow the same in me. How would we be here otherwise?

She thought, (I don’t know. This is more than a love story: a mystery. Maybe all love stories are mysteries.) 

She & he & they & we & you & me—homing:

Toward home!

Not straight away, crow dart-of-an-arrow going home, but a curvaceous, loopy, round-about, verdant waving, weaving (good-bye, hello, good-) course of going home to Love, since home is where the heart is, so the saying goes, and she wears it well-fitted all around and inside her, like a snail’s shell, able to leave for a hermit to inhabit. She doesn’t want anyone to be homeless (even as a state of mind) and thinks while wandering in search of the Ancient Near East—Catal Höyük, Uruk, Anatolia—by way of an arsenical copper ibex stand, cuneiform impressed on clay tablets, ceramic jars, cylinder seals & kudurru (“boundary stones”): What did they bound? Should we cross the threshold? before “Glimpses of the Silk Road” offer an ivory rhyton carved as a lion-griffin, reassembled from 350 fragments, beside carnelian stamp seals with portraits along the balcony, across from blue & white Ming porcelain flasks, linen-draped tables, baby grand & four stands for a string quartet, since it’s almost Friday evening (a performance she can almost hear, Mozart Schubert Vivaldi)—over the ledge, where people cluster like pinwheels among admissions booths, coat checks, the gift shop, information islands, security checks—humming: La casa entra nella strada: La casa entra nella strada: La casa entra nella strada:

                       Ut queant laxis

                                   Resonare fibris

                                               Mira gestorum

                                                           Famuli tuorum

                                                                       Solve polluti

                                                                            Labii reatum

                                                                                  Sancte Joannes:

                                                                                               (unraveling)

                                                                                  O for thy spirit…

                                                                       fettered tongues…

                                                           chasten lips…

                                               to loosen tongues…

                                   wonder…

                       be chanted…

In Southeast Asia, she encounters semblances of silence, in a limestone sculpted pagoda enclosing decapitated bodhisattvas across from “Pure Land of Bhaishajyaguru, The Buddha of Healing” (a pigment painting on clay & straw) before a pot-bellied Yaksha and voluptuous Yakshi (male & female nature gods, in stone—that stiffens her thoughts of ephemeral mediums, as she chips away at blocks: to shape all of this, to make it endure, to let go of) bronze metal stupas, inscribed schist reliquaries, a red sandstone Four-Armed Vishnu (missing his conch) & Garuda (with broken wings), copper Shiva as Lord of the Dance & a teakwood meeting hall (whose dome lacks eight large figures, known only from early photographs, of musicians and dancers rising upward toward eight Regents of the Directions, keeping watch) as she goes round, around wider & widening circles, round-about:

Sighing, she picks up pace en route to China, past large screen paintings with auspicious dragons & waves (“a symbol of the elemental forces of nature”) & fish (“a symbol of unencumbered happiness that is also a rebus for abundance”), past trailing Japanese bokuseki that dance across pages as if alive & breathing, down a wide marble staircase, whose landing displays a cast iron Head of Buddha, to the ground floor where visitors swarm and buzz, See! 

A granite sarcophagus, she sees, then considers entombment within boxes like a nested doll, leaked of thoughts & heart, bottled and balmed with fractured poetry and incantations, in painted caskets facing a single direction within walls, ideograms, figures (whose doubled limbs signify movement, following the lion’s gaze)—in a hidden room at the end of a dark tunnel, echoing:

Echoing (empty, empty, empty:)

It is here, where deciphering needs to take place, so far into the maze. Labyrinthine, the museum is like that, so a visitor needs a map to find an egress rather than get lost in another gallery, or end up in Ancient Egypt instead of the Exit. 

When she sees the tomb empty, she can’t move, feeling weighted by stones (broken arms, legs, feet, hands) that push her inside her thoughts, memories: her escape by groping in slow motion, like a wind-up toy without a key, raising her fingers to reach (a key-board, no longer communication, instead “opening of the mouth” as if to sing)—here, there: resonances. She keeps believing: temperament is more than technology, if she listens more closely, she may hear Pythagorean commas (slight dissonances) amid Music of the Spheres (untempered, chromatically) played-by-not-playing, contradictions in terms that grant comprehension, if she listens like tuners who once distinguished purer intervals—between the lines:

              Go to…

                            Years later…

                                          It was…

                                                        Once upon…

                                          She sighed…

                            Home was…

Retracing routes that brought her here, to trace a new path, she scatters stones (pebbles or philosopher’s) from her pockets like petals or bread crumbs. And that could be one way to follow: the story of their coming home—as if larger forces (aural & planetary motions; the expanding soul & universe) had caused the Fall.

 

Solve polluti

 

It was fall when he returned. That fall when Faar returned from The Great War. The first sight the twins saw was his leg. One leg, where there had been two. A brown and green quilt covered him, bulging on his left lap, sunken on his right; a left foot stuck from the bottom, alone. His body slumped in a chair whose wheels left grooves in the orchard’s dirt. 

Mor pushed him past dusty tracks, oaks, and persimmon trees, toward the porch. The chair rolled sullenly, slowly, then stopped a few feet shy of the gaping girls. 

Mor bent over the bandaged head and whispered in his one ear. She placed her palm on his folded hands in his lap and looked expectantly at Eva and Una, who did not move.

Mor’s eyes said, Come and greet Faar.

The girls stood still. They did not believe the Man in the Chair was their Faar.  He had no leg; there was little face to recognize him. They had not seen him for two years, except in the black-and-white photograph that they kissed each night before bed and each morning when they awoke. Days in and out during that interim, Mor had sat by the window, without looking out its unseasonably rain-streaked glass, with her head bent, sewing. She sewed anything sewable in order not to be idle, not to sin. She knitted socks and delivered satchels of them to a building in town, where she also stitched scarlet crosses on white squares, which were joined into Memorial quilts and embroidered with names of faraway soldiers, auctioned to buy more yarn to make more socks. 

Though fabrics were scarce, the Memorial quilts were not piecemeal like the Crazy variant. Patterned like occasioned quilts (for births, engagements, weddings, friendships, anniversaries, deaths), they now derived from world wars. The quilt that Mor wrapped around the Man in the Chair was not Memorial nor Crazy. It was Log Cabin style, with muslin rectangles pieced together like the foundation of a house. Mor’s quilting companions had called it “Mummy” and “Egyptian” because the rectangles wrapped around a central square—like tunnels around a secret tomb, on the other side of the world, Mrs. Gerard had said to Eva and Una, when she described it to them on a visit some weeks ago.

“Come and greet Faar,” Mor said aloud now. The girls continued to stare at the Man in the Chair, mummified in the earthy colored rectangles. They wondered if their real Faar was in Egypt, the most foreign place they could conceive. Or if this was Faar, then he might be reemerged from a tomb. He responded to “Faar” when Mor called him, but he did not look like the Faar the twins knew. His face held one exposed eye, under which his hollow, sallow cheek bunched into tiny skin folds. The eye looked at them glassily and beaded with tears that rolled down his cheeks, caught and blotted by the shroud that draped his face. He tried to smile, but muscles in his mouth lost their nerve. His pupil resembled one of the apricot stones that littered the yard.

“Come and greet Faar,” Mor gulped at the stilted twins. Her pleading gaze gripped them; and their feet crept forward by a will larger than their own. The Man stretched out his shrunken, spotted arms. He tried to say something; but words stuck in his throat.  The girls stopped short and shirked at his infirmity. More of his tears came and caught in his cloth.

Not the same Faar, his datters’ withdrawing expressions said in silence. He saw they did not remember what he had taught them about losses and hidden hearts. They did not think it capable that Faar was so near. 

That night, when Mor called the girls to come say goodnight to Faar, they went to his photograph and kissed the small, flat, sepia cheeks of a full face. They did not go near his bedroom.

In the days that followed, the Man in the Chair did not ask to see stars, as the old Faar would have. So it could not be him, the sisters concluded. Nor did he talk about the sea or crossing more oceans. At night, he hovered on his bed, shaking and whimpering. Mor lifted him in and out of his chair, wrapping and unwrapping him in his mummy quilt. Her fingers—never idle, never transgressing—found new purpose in bandaging his wounds and sowing the seeds of his farm (apples, pears, apricots, walnuts, persimmons), since two seasons had brought rains that logged the fruits with water, which pulled them to earth and drowned them in sodden ditches. Mor concealed the Man’s losses under the quilt and cloth mask, and also strapped on and off his new leg from the Artificial Limb Company, contracted by the State to supply soldiers who had lost parts of themselves.

The Man in the Chair yearned to regain some things but for others desired the luxury of forgetting. There was no cure or prevention against anecdotes that spread in his mind like a disease. No tale could be breathed aloud, he feared, in case it birthed another, more grievous“Not today,” he whispered every time Mor asked. 

In the Man’s silence, the girls began to concoct tales. The wooden leg became more than a leg, walking around to find its twin, left on the other side of the world, faraway in the Faar-away, in E-g-y-p-t. (How were the twins to know that the bomb had detonated and shrapnel had embedded in F-r-a-n-c-e?) The limb wandered, keeping company with fallen tree branches.

Eva and Una would not touch the artificial limb, not when it was attached to the Man in the Chair nor when it was detached, when he was in bed. Then the girls especially stayed away; when his one eye started to cry and his fragmented body shook; when he pressed his hands to his ear against noise only he could hear and yelled not at them, “Gas, gas!,” writhing out of bed, onto the floor, under the bed, fumbling and cowering in a corner, legless; his partly faceless face he covered with quivering hands while Mor ran in the room and implored, “Lars!,” reaching out her trembling hands. The Man was beyond her grasp, under the bedsprings, under a spell, shaking and shrieking. Mor slumped back on her heels, rocked and cried like her ward, and laid down her head to his level, to be near him. To be.

After a time, his quaking lessened. A moment joined another moment. He slowly stilled to sleep. His soft breaths. His. Hers. Both curled on the bare beamed floor.  

Those were nights.

As the sun set, it inevitably rose. The Man under the Bed awoke. Mor unfurled and lifted the tangle of his remaining limbs into bed. She gave him his memento box to leave open on his bedside table during the day, though it was stowed in a hallway chest at night. Inside the tarnished tin-box, a dogtag lay beside a photograph (of the family before the war, seated in best frocks and his suit—a copy of the same image the girls kissed); an empty cartridge; the pen he had used to write letters home; a pocket-sized Bible; and a stack of letters with crinkled edges, bound with string.

The Man in the Bed did not touch any of the items, except the last. He opened and closed a particular piece of the crinkly, scribbled paper, which served as his cache for pressed petals. The petals were scarlet, fragile, papery like his withered skin, with black flat eyes. He called them pop-pies. They grew everywhere, red, in the Faaraway where he had been. Their seeds could lie in the ground for years and bloom only when uprooted. Battles had churned up soil across a whole front, and poppies bloomed there as commonly as grass.

The Man in the Bed would touch nothing but the petals.

He was caressing them when Mrs. Gerard came to see Mor. The visitor had organized a bequeathal of fabrics since Mor had not attended a quilting bee in months. “You can make your own design,” Mrs. Gerard encouraged Mor, assuming she would make the Crazy kind, given the multiple small scraps in the bag. Mrs. Gerard preferred that non-pattern: the lawless combination of different fabrics, their final union, the fact that a Crazy quilter didn’t have to be connected with a particular occasion or pattern, and could add whatever materials she found. There are enough figurings in our heads, as is, Mrs. Gerard did not say aloud, thinking of daily tallies of wounded and dead, numbers of battles, gained and lost ground, erroneous estimates of time before the war’s end, the date of her nephew’s death at Somme, countless funerals before eleven, eleven, eleven, eighteen—too many numbers to want to remember. Colors and textures were safer. Mrs. Gerard removed the pieces, most of which were red or white, among blues, left over from Memorial quilt projects. She also showed Mor thread, needles, and pins in a notion box. “I’ll be back in two weeks,” the visitor called to the porch as she walked away from Mor, who stood with filled arms, unable to wave.

When her friend disappeared from sight, Mor turned and walked into the shadowy house, past the playing twins, and down the cool, dark hallway on the creaky bare beamed floor. She continued past the chest that nightly held the memento box, and to the bedroom where Faar quivered beside its openness. Mor dropped the bundle on the bedspread to free her hands, to open the closet door. She turned to retrieve the fabrics. 

A single piece had fallen, not on the mummy quilt but in Faar’s open palm. Mor tried to remove it. But he held it fast. He unfurled the fingers of his other hand. 

Pause. 

She placed a second piece of fabric there. He sighed. Mor placed another. Sigh. Another. She placed each material in his grasp. One by one. Sigh by sigh.

He fingered each piece. The fabrics were soft, feathery, smooth, rippled, ribbed. He lifted them to his cheek, beside the white cloth that bound his senses and blotted his tears; as if there were more to touch than dried petals from crinkled paper. Soft, feathery, smooth, rippled, ribbed. Sighs.

Mor decided then: to make these fabrics into a new quilt, of poppies. She would sew a garden of red shades and textures. Although day stole her other energies, night granted her time to work on the project. By candlelight, she stitched. Stitch by stitch, patch by patch; finger pricks dripped drops of blood on seams in silk, satin, crepe, velvet, crinoline; against ruby checkers, paisleys, plaids.

Mor sewed because she thought Faar’s heart hid and could be released. She remembered the old stories—the Giant who Hid his Heart Outside his Body—that she wanted Faar to tell now, to remind the girls and himself. And her. She wanted prayers granted and knew that, if she grew idle, they would not be. If she stopped linking this to that, all would be lost. 

She attached fabrics to one another, herself to her activity, irreversibly. Nights spread into days into nights, and days, and more. As the quilt continued to grow, her attention drifted from her datters. Her eyes hollowed. The candle burned longer and shortened more quickly than before. When Eva and Una begged for her, Mor told them to keep their own hands busy. “The devil works through idle hands,” she repeated and sent them outside to gather fruit, per-sim-mons, since those were in season.

Swinging a basket between them, the sisters ran to boughs with pumpkin-orange bulbs. They picked persimmons, one by one, to fill the basket. One of the persimmons burst and coated Eva’s hands with pulp. Una laughed and rubbed her hands in the bleeding harvest. And the sisters continued picking, to keep their hands busy. To not be idle. For Mor, for Faar, for Holde, for themselves. For the Giant. For Auriga. For shipwrecked stars. And only after the basket overflowed did they turn back toward home, leaving a flaming trail in the their wake.

 

 

With grateful acknowledgment, excerpts of this remix of The House Enters the Street first appeared, unmodulated, in Alaska Quarterly Review and Ascent as “Where Are You Going?” and “The Mummy Quilt.”