I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The canoe is covered in canvas, and something is trapped in the weave, deep under the shellac. A knot perhaps, or stitch.
The canoe hangs in the boathouse above a shelf of Chinese scrolls. We must carry it down the curving staircase cut into the island’s shelf. There is a small landing where once, an assembly of foxes had gathered. The pines are so tall they take no notice.
Behind the kitchen pane, an offering of orchids. This is gathered by looking up and in, from the dock, rather than down and out, from the porch. Off we go! We paddle. An adjoining island, across a narrow straight so shallow our canoe can barely pass through. Once the islands were joined with a small footbridge. Now the island is a nouveau travesty, and the cove a niche, where a banker lands his seaplane.
On this island, this lesser island, we speak our oral depictions in the glacial night, the black lake beyond us. Our hovels are long abandoned, and the houses, unclaimed. We walk the sodden pathways, looking for certain mushrooms. Our anecdotes are limpid, re-stitched and embellished.
It is not yet vermillion in this western sector. On the ground are little bitter apples. The chimes of that other island are tuneless, atonal. Their reeds are sticky husks. We hate them there—we hate the other island.
Once, our grandparents wore gowns and felt bonnets. They emerged from long boats, with a servant called Jennie, who baked the bread while the old things skinny-dipped. Almost everyone else was a child. Naming the granite rocks, even under the water’s surface.
Is it so different? Now there is black bread, black soap to wash our faces. Resin from the pines. The squirrels steal the cucumber peelings off the heap. We drink a salt tea. Our cove is hidden from the gaze of any ship. We motor into shore for provisions. There we find mercantile architectures. And right on the edge of the lake, a great train station, and sometimes the water rises over the rails, and recedes and leaves the tracks covered in seaweed. Except of course, this is not the sea.
Black larches, and in summer berries and fruits release their perfumes. We like canvas in limp tatters. We like birch limbs bent into arbors. Mottled sky and herbal garlands. Starch ruffed sheets, and the moon in 1st quarter, and charades. We like a fox, though there are none on the islands. Though I found a skin once.
We like a skin. We walk around in nothing but ours. But my skin is separate from me, I think. My skin has shrunk, at times, or my skin is too tall.
I took a job on fire watch. The small valley sat like a cup in the mountain. Cliff walls cast shadows that hatched the main square in tartan. The trees went like torches, from cinders, where the air was this dry. I watched for strikes, and marked them in a log.
An illness spread across this town carefully installed in the cup of the mountain. In this way summer passed away softly while everyone slept. After a time, survivors—winnowed, spindly—emerged from dark bedclothes. These sleepwalkers moved silently below the lip of snow encircling the valley. Winded, as though after a long swim: hushed, quick breath from the nose slipped toward the rim above them, across clouded irises. At this first breath after a difficult wait, began another difficult wait. And so they respired.
The storm followed the slow snow. In my tower, so much above the level of the highest roofs, I kept watch for lightening. Here I passed from waking to sleep, from sleep to waking, until a barb of light struck deep in the highest out-cropping and cut a black gash in the rock. The fire passed vertically along the slope, in both directions, and swiftly the valley rose up in fire. It took up my tower as I slid down a long bronze pole, through seven floors, comfortably furnished for the watch. The fire drew its line at the town’s edge, but for the town. Still the snow held its shelf. I had expected the worst, and expected it still. I staggered. I sheltered. Below a blaze, a flat conflagration.
My cornerstone remained the ruin left from fire. I blackened my skin with soot, and held quiet in the shadows. Some walkers still crept across the floor of the valley, here and again obscured in smoke. Their eyes, mostly overtaken by the passing sickness, reflected the last licks of fire. In nightdresses, they began their removal to a point upland, where the sky, no longer engulfed, cast no shadows. I should not proceed, but I followed, many steps behind the last of them who, turning occasionally to look at me in the widening gap between us, appeared quite hypnotized and gave back no judgment of culpability. But I was culpable, and so I followed at a great distance until, parched and weakening, I was only my two legs. There was no hope to catch them, except that for the time they had stopped at the last corner of the mountain, before moving into the flat of the crown, a pale plateau. Here, the strike of the bolt had drawn water from the rock. I joined the procession entirely unnoticed, though I imagined that the last of them registered my shape with mute, clouded regard. I bent to drink from the fountain with cupped hands: hollow cup, tacit and applicable.
Expect very little from me, I thought, and I will give it!
In an unseen cove, the inmates disembark. Dark dress, darkened eyes, under the cover of the shadow of a cliff. Make way onto the beach.
We are suspicious of the landscape. White, unshrouded stone. Above us, an unrepeatable glow. One of the number is wounded. Blessed, marked, however, and half-way bare. Torn at the knuckles, his waistband in copper. Begin the scale, alight along the limestone. The karabiner clip on the ropeworks.
Into the sequence given: a webbed formation. Suitably hitched. We hold each other thus, shortly slung. The effort is manual. And we are burdened.
Rarely a gate in the cliff such as this, which gives itself onto a tunnel. I secret myself. I unclip, with a flutter. I haul in the casualty. The others continue the ascent. For us, it is now the lateral path. A blessing, a questionable approach. The reposition is not smooth. I hoist. I begin with the lighted lamp. I am careful.
Our greatest disadvantage is our smooth repositioning.
I was not a real witness. I saw them only reflected in a glass eye. The snow continued on the dark pavement.
A shift in silk. An unstarched ruffle. With so little in between, it is no surprise that the final inches seemed formed in glass. The rest unfolded at great length, and in many variations, as long as the mind could keep up with the eye.
The mission surmised is as follows: the eye of this ship looks out.
I’ve little to report. The mission collapsed, we resubmerged and returned to the deep.
The Captain Gal Quarter positions herself on the skirted ottoman in the submarine’s main salon. Brocade closures for the quilted jacket. A nautical chart unfurled. The Adventuress Lore Calendale attempts to take notice.
The story is told in limbs. The leg of the table is a tentacle. She toes it with a pointy slipper. She lowers the mechanical arm, bespoke with a nautical scepter. She fingers the globe of fish on the table. Her skirt spreads out on the chair. The lantern is etched, and she’s come well below deck to see the markings.
I only keep watch as ordered, and record my findings in the log. The mission specifics articulated, there is little left to tell. The exterior of our vehicle is panes and panels, riveted. The vessel submerges, the vessel emerges. Such catches and couplings, those that mark the ship’s casing, drip rivulets, and these all the more the story’s relevant parts. Inside is an exposure of pipes, the innards on display, the body of the ship, the body of the vessel.
In this sequence: location, movement, flight. A coast, a path, a cloister, an aviary, the kennels. Into the glaive go the Trappists.
Beyond this asylum a gate which rotates. Beyond the gate a path or a park. The monk passes quickly tethered at the waist to a pup. We often know things by what follows them.
The fantasy of seclusion in this kennel of men protected from such temptations. (Oh, but for women I’d have long ago been a monk myself.)
The fantasy of escape from a high tower. That a lover’s gaze finds us through walls. Into the cloister, cut so deeply into the hill, we spend our time in transit from top to bottom.
We had always only lived in part of the castle. The rest was for tourists, but we kept up our end. In the hardest months, we turned into the tower. The foundation had settled in the clay, and we found ourselves fairly on the level.
Things went on that way for some time, exactly as you’d suspect: someone still brought us our toast propped up against a water glass. The boots went out at night, and came back in the morning. I’m not saying I was the chauffeur’s daughter, but I certainly wasn’t born to it. I signed on the dotted line. I know what they say when it comes to station: there’s a this and a that and a window in between? You can’t go hopping from one thing to the other without breaking glass? No matter; we soon felt the dense planting awaken, and made our way out in Wellingtons.
This is the part about a duel between gentlemen. A wealthy Texan bought up a whole wing, and we had him in on evenings. His aim was excellent, and his manners even better, but the footman shot milord in the arm for effect. What a sorry wreck he was there swathed in his own ascot! I guess it was a gesture: I admit I was beginning to cause a stir. My sister showed up later in a mink coat with nothing underneath. She was trying to get in on the action, but I stood my ground. You’ve got to hold onto tradition. Still, it killed me to see that Texan go. In any case, he finally left us much as he found us, waiting for things to green-up on our side.
We ferry at sunset across ocher waters toward the windswept isle of Man. Isle of a man, I ask? Our eyes are trying to start a dialog. There are seabirds: shags and gannets, and choughs and black grouse. The sharks are basking. All tongues cease. The images speak for themselves, so why am I talking?
The mechanism lurches. We are in landing, as if cornered in impasse. The moon has assumed a position in the sky, a moiré-yellowed effect. We grip tight a concrete pillar and alight. We advance toward the railway line, and the signal post. There is an embroidered streetcar. There is the scent of precious wood in the air, here. Felled larches and linden. And there is the smell of scarlet torches, in windows, in the embrasures, hung with raffia strands. They build new follies without shame in the dun-colored dunes, in arid crests at the seaside. It is not, in the strictest sense, extra-terrestrial.
The locomotive moves so the sea now lies on our left. The signs are legible, but the language is not ours.
From the village we must walk up a lane, and a lane, and a lane, and cross guards for the sheep, and pass thus through their checkpoints. We have night vision and a concept of commons. We are on the high plateau. The sea is in sight.
There is no more campground in an outpost far from the front step. Or bathing in the icy stream or unsurpassed pemmican. They are finally into the farmhouse, though it is moss-blurred, and on the edges, a ruin. There is crushed flint. There is a violet light on the slate step, and fronds gone mauve as well, or they are myrtle. Our brother emerges from a trap in the thatching, in his samurai’s silver topknot. Is he as tall as the house itself? Yes, he is very tall. No, he is merely atop a ladder. There is a warm greeting from this small square: a wave, a bird’s wing.
Where is his wife? She is inside in a needlework chair, in a blue silk jacket and a mantel of marmot.
There are curds simmering. Though there was difficulty in lighting the stove. And there is the aroma of quick lime, and of praline, and of rich herb soups, and of smoke from the stove, from mushrooms packed tightly in a pipe. Our brother wears a coiled trouser, and a coat of short translucent hair. His wife is marked by the scent of rosewood and hessian.
At the long table, I let out the accordion of my satchel, wherein lie unconfiscated manuscripts.
This is a space without doors. A place in lambskins. The valves are clattering. That night, we sleep in the mill room with a mill wheel, but the water way has been diverted. We awaken with stoats on our chest.
Where is the man, I ask? The manx, I am told. There are several species of bats on this isle. There are ewes for milking. There are feral goats. Perhaps a fox. There were once wolves. But this island system has been purged of its monsters. So say the laments of seamen, in their folklore. The ship’s bowels appeared at great distances, and only through irregular hatches. Once there was liquor from milk, and rifle breeches, and warring but discrete manxes. There was the black vulture. There were sparse pastures and the soil was more ochre, and the water in the streams had the quality of a clot. Gone were the windowpanes. There were rooms of only trembling, and corpses lain out on the floor in their draping. There were entrances to tunnels, and sheltering arches, and a coded lexicon of the encampments. All attacks were an attack on a mechanism, and it was possible to live without shame in endless ruins.
There are now fine boardwalks and pastries and high clear wind. There are mooring ropes. There is the soft lilt of an Asiatic flute. There are no more twitching tails, they tell us. There are only sails with their goose wings outstretched. Jibs, topgallants, and mizzens in a rain of shooting stars. These were always the boats of the mind, they tell us, but we speak the language of today and no other.
In that season, we moved only a little before resting. Where we moved we brought thirst with us. The dry sky, broken with lightening, showed in the distance oblique angles on the ridge where their orders had last been given. Later, the dusk settled.
I kept aside a glass of water for the approaching horseman. He moved in silence, dark silhouette on a great pale bay passing below the hayloft where I slept roughly, in patterned cotton, under the dust curling in the last hard light.
Silence loosens sleep. Dry lashes strike the hand in a blink. I awoke from a dream that masked sex in bright activity: erotic acts affixed to fateful consequence. Dead of darkness and within a hothouse bound in ice. Bodies thickened, and faceted through glass.
In deeper states of waking, I pulled my head across the loft’s picture window, open to the air, where a dark pulley hung just above eye level. He continued flatly across the horizon line. Where I come from, we never disturb a man who is deeply moved.
He advanced, but displaced no shadows. His silhouette cut very long across the shoulders. I prepared my breath for the coming consumption.
Imagine the eiderdown in flames appears on a scrim in a shadow play. One striking and recognizable mark within the penumbra. Otherwise, indiscernible shadows. Vague shapes circle endlessly. A hot image of the countryside at harvest time where the eye grows brutal in its affections. In the bed prepared for him from grass and chaff lay a stolen object.
Violent the shoulder gapes
Joanna Howard is most recently coauthor of Field Glass, a collaborative novel written with Joanna Ruocco and published earlier this year by Sidebrow. Her books include Foreign Correspondent, On the Winding Stair, and In the Colorless Round. She lives in Providence and teaches at Brown University.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee