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
They spoke in light, when they felt like speaking. They spoke only to her, they said. When she asked them what they wanted, they retreated into the bark of their tree, and the night turned back to black. Sometimes she just watched them where they congregated in that old ailanthus outside her window, and didn’t ask them questions. They would do as they pleased, whispering in hostile tendrils of crackling light words she often couldn’t understand or tracing curious cartoon figures on the pane with mercury and yellow sparks, or bursting into a cloud of crystals when at last she told them to go away. She alone knew them in the beginning, though she hadn’t known them well enough to be able to say, in her child’s voice, “Such and such took place.” But now, because of what she had done, and after they had warned her not to, others would know they were there, and that meant there was going to be a problem.
It was late when the knocking was heard. Her father found her in her room standing at the third story window of the brownstone, slapping her palm against the glass, which was luminous with the holophane light that came from a window across the back yard. Her face was dappled by shadows thrown through wet limbs and the errant snow drifting down between them; and her father’s wonder at how she had gotten herself so worked up, and what kind of dream could have left her in such a state—naked and shaking—was only overwhelmed by what formed on the girl’s lips once he got a blanket around her and lifted her into his arms.
“They come in off the branch,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“They did, out there.”
He looked over her head into the night where winter smoke had settled with the snow over everything, peering down in the courtyard where the brick walls were veined with ivy and dangling cables. A silhouette of some intruder, which he always hoped for, something to substantiate these events, was nowhere to be seen. He lifted the window a little, as her room was warm, and heard the music of the pianist who lived across the way, echoing against the brick. The city, someone always awake—couldn’t that guy learn something else, all those crowded arpeggios flying every which way, and the piano out of tune through every note.
“They’re gone now,” he assured his daughter, setting her down and running his hand over her damp hair. The room had cooled, and he pulled the window shut.
“They want in.”
The man heard her brothers talking in the hall—small voices of complaint about this middle of the night stuff going on again—and he shouted over his shoulder at them to go back to bed, and hearing their footsteps retreating back down the corridor, asked her, quietly as he could, “Grace, who wants in?”
“Right there, them light-people,” she pointed to where they were still, out there pulsing and pushing, sending out their white razor flame. They weren’t happy about being tattled on, was what the small one with the electric zigzag tongue told her. Hey, that girl was going to pay for her indiscretion. Her father was saying something to her but she couldn’t quite make out his words given what an angry din the intensified lights had raised. They never really said they wanted to be her friends, but on the other hand they didn’t think they had done anything to her that would provoke such treachery. She opened her mouth to apologize but they weren’t interested in listening to apologies. They reminded her that she could have come out onto the branch and joined them whenever she wanted. Hadn’t some of them been beckoning? Her father put her back to bed, and read to her for a while. The music from across the walled yard stopped, and the tree dimmed and was quiet.
Just before Christmas, two nights later, a static voice came to her and said, Hey Grace? you want to see a trick?
Watch this, watch this, you won’t believe it.
She went to the window, her fingers gathered to her chest, her quilt wrapped like a shawl around her as she stood at the window again and watched the light show. The flare man—the only one of the light people Grace felt was a friend—was alone, and had on a shell-pink tuxedo through which you could see his skeleton. Across his face, a crisp fuchsia smile.
Don’t look down, girl, just watch this, he said.
Grace was afraid to call for her father, for fear in part she might awaken the small one who had threatened to sting her with that zigzag tongue of his, and in part because she didn’t want her brothers to say anything about her light people, especially Berg, who made fun of her, and them, whenever he got the chance.
It was an astonishing display. It made her smile back at him, despite her terror. The flare man had gathered himself into a small ball of voltage, about the size of a baby, and then ran lightning snakes down and up and out, winding their way around every branch and limb of the tree so that the tree burst bright into bloom, and this ailanthus, this glorious urban weed—this botanical survivor which sprouted between subway tracks, survived in pitch-dark cellars, in ventilation shafts, which sent down roots into fissures in the streets, where they strangled pipes and needled the bedrock—which was called, for all its love of darkness, the Tree of Heaven, wore for a moment its full garland of summer leaves, right here at the beginning of winter. The leaves nodded, cordial and companionable. Each leaf was impeccable in shape and contour, each was composed of humming, blue light.
Grace clapped and laughed, until the force of the blast against the casement knocked her backwards into her bureau.
Shelter Island. How appropriate the name must have seemed. As seasoned a traveler as he was, my father, whom I have called Faw as far back as I can remember, had never been there, and for all he knew, the island was nothing but a hump of granite, with patches of bitter grass cropped by stinking unshorn sheep, or a mud flat furred with pampas and populated by birds and scuttling crabs. But he liked the way it looked on the map, cradled between two earthly arms of the north and south forks of Long Island. I can still see him settling his lanky body into a library chair and putting his lean, intent face down close to the map. I can see how he imagined Peconic Bay flowing outward toward the east, Gardiners Bay flowing in from the open waters, how all the coves and inlets of the island swirled in their wash. Together they suggested renewal to him, my renewal. They hinted at absolution and health. And though there have been people in my life who have tried to convince me that a man as self-absorbed as my father could only have removed me and the rest of us to the island to reduce the distraction of raising a family—to hide behind mine his own need for renewal, or a darker need to be left alone—I have refused to believe it. Even now I know it’s never been quite that simple.
My father was an Atlas man. He trusted maps more than the land itself. He lived by them, and the names people had given to the rivers and towns on them. While he was not what you would call a religious person—we children were never exposed to the sepulchral interior of a church, or any lessons about Christians and virgin births and miracles and so forth (except somehow I knew that St. Peter was crucified upside down, which I thought was pretty wild)—he was superstitious to a fault. My father would trust the most important decision to what most people would consider trivial, a word, a number, a color. So when my night visions got “completely out of hand”—these were my mother’s words the morning after the flare man’s shows, words not meant to be overheard by me who never felt the night visions to be visions, as such—he went to his map case. Out came his compass. I watched him, this muscular yet delicate man, as he pinned its metal tip into the paper at the point where we lived, pulled the pencil leg out, and described a circle. Half the area inside the circle was light blue, the ocean. He let his finger wander over the map as if it were a Ouija board, then his intuition (yes; for though he was superstitious, he was willful in his way) tempted him out along the length of the burnt umber body of Long Island. He smiled at me and it was one of those moments in which I couldn’t tell whether we were experiencing something together and I was supposed to offer a conspiratorial smile in return, or whether he was enjoying himself while mildly teasing me—something he loved to do from time to time. With his free hand he gathered me over against him and showed me where we were going.
Of New York, where I was born, in April 1957, and lived until my seventh birthday, I can remember a few fragments.
There was a sailboat pattern on my bedroom curtains, with tall brown mountains which ringed the tan water in which the boats rode. The wrought-iron in front of our townhouse near the park up in Harlem was strong, and the smell of summer garbage along the streets was strong. The nocturnal visits of the light people and the aphotic bouts with my head were often followed by my father’s reading to me from Shahrazad’s thousand and one tales, which I liked because Shahrazad was such an interesting liar. My mother, Erin, was a pale, blue-eyed woman of medium height, with a tall brow and angular, honest cheekbones, fine manly hands whose veins were very prominent. Her hair, auburn shot through with scotch, was to my memory’s eye so flowing, as flowing as any Pre-Raphaelite’s but without the usual douleur, and far more Irish. (People sometimes said that when I got older she and I would look like sisters, as we shared these features—except my eyes were green.) My mother often smelled of potpourri, which was an obsession of hers, an eccentric one I always thought, wresting petals off cut flowers, roses mostly, and drying them on the kitchen counter spread with dish towels. These are clear, unblocked memories, and they’re the only ones I have got, because what my life was before we emigrated to the island seems to blend into an indistinction that is as familiar as the perfume from those cloisonné bowls of potpourri, and as impossible to distinguish as the scent of one flower from another.
My migraines, which were alluded to as seldom as possible in our family, as if they were leprosy or madness, were referred to by us with the amiable name of “megrim”—which sounded to me like “my grim,” an accurate-enough homonym. They were the source, it was agreed by the several doctors to whom I’d been taken, of my visions … psychotic ecstasies, as one of the specialists—whom Faw loathed—called them; auras was Dr. Trudeau’s word. Everyone was always more upset, and perhaps awed by the sheer phenomenological peculiarity of the visions than I, and as a result tended to ignore the migraine itself. For me, the auras, the whispering lights and fantastical occurrences, were indeed enthralling and even ecstatic, whereas the megrims that led to them were just weighty and deadening. During the megrims all I wanted was for my senses to stop receiving signals from the world, and for everything to come to an end. The megrims backed me into a dark wet quiet which, unlike the darkness my jolly haunted ailanthus tree thrived in, forbade growth. It is common for us to speak of St. Hildegard’s sublime visions, when we speak of such things, and to marvel at her mystical stars and her descriptions of the city of God and the Fall of the Angels and all that stuff, but seldom do we think of her as just a pitiful girl racked by pains she didn’t understand, which to this day medicine has neither explained nor been able to cure. I used to rue the fact that we weren’t religious. I’ve fantasized what my so-called visions might have meant to me if we had been. I could have been a saint, instead of Grace Brush. But some of the things I’ve done in life as a result of not believing I wouldn’t give up for anything, let alone a martyr’s seat up in big old boring heaven. Let others retire in celestial peace and walk the Elysian fields—which I picture as being a kind of golf course, pristine and manicured, with paths of raked star dust. For myself, give me my earthly weeds and I’ll go my own direction.
There were other houses on the island which dated from the same period as Scrub Farm, mid-19th century. Families lived on and on in them, passing them down to children who married some cousin or another, in the island tradition. There they settled, just as their ancestors had, and stayed put, rather than to risk launching themselves like sea-battered coracles out toward the world beyond their shores. Like most islanders, they preferred to live among their own kind, and together survived all the hardships that poverty and ignorance and bad weather brought their way.
But while Scrub Farm’s owners got through the Depression, the widow Merriam outlived every relative she ever had, and died heirless at the beginning of the new year, 1964. Scrub Farm was hardly a farm. For one, there wasn’t much land to cultivate. The wind had for centuries blown across its stony fields, bending the trees, drying the soil. Whenever a storm came in off the ocean, Scrub Farm would have been the first to be hit, set as it was at the foremost edge of the island.
Never give up a known for an unknown, who said that? Still, the way we piled into the front of the truck made for a kind of physical, animal togetherness which shadowed the currents of anger that were running, especially between my parents, in a binding way—the same way a prisoner’s striped pajamas bind him with the prospects of being in his barred cell.
Dr. Trudeau’s idea was coming to pass and at least in the beginning mother was willing to play her role in it, because of me, and because she was so surprised that Faw had decided to take the advice of one of my doctors, something he had never done in the past. She had doubts, to say the least, however. If I didn’t improve, would she be stuck out there with all those inbreds and fishermen, hated by the natives as a summer person who got it in mind to live there year-round? Mother never liked even leaving our neighborhood in Manhattan, thrived in her way on the city’s chaos, loved nothing better than to look out from the roof of our building, on summer nights, into the steamy black of Central Park limned with lamplight down its lanes and at its borders. Was she to be exiled not just to this island, but to a remote part of it as well, there at the end of a causeway? She had looked at the photograph of Scrub Farm—that polaroid glazed with streaks dark as the skin of the eggplant she sliced for our last supper, boxes stacked high in every room of the apartment, the place oppressive with that combination of melancholy and anticipation which fills rooms about to be vacated.
The photograph showed a weathered exterior of bleached-out, sun-cupped clapboard. Two stories with a filigreed widow’s walk dangling like a tottery derrick, or one of Gumby’s ant-enemies, from the peak. A carriage house, fuzzy in the background behind a row of decrepit trees. A single bayberry bush caught in a moment of shivering in the low scampering air. A yellow cactus clung to the stony soil. It didn’t look like such a place could be in New York State, it looked foreign. Everything appeared dilapidated, bare, and, but for the house on the slight rise and the sizable cherry tree next to it, low—no doubt from aeons of sea and wind working away at it. She hadn’t liked what she saw. Aside from the thin green trace of horizon, and the blue line of ocean, which reminded her of the blue line the police barricade makes along the avenue and the green line they paint on the pavement when they’re going to have a St. Patrick’s parade, the very thought of which cheered her flagging spirits, everything in the image felt prehistoric and desolate to her, and wholly untenable.
I heard my parents talking that last night, when I couldn’t sleep, when I stood there at my window trying my best to ask the light people to come out and say goodbye, knowing that since I didn’t have a megrim there was little chance they’d be conjured. I heard her ask him why she had to leave home and he didn’t? She said, “I hate the country, I hate the idea of having to water trees” (to which he answered, “For chrissake, you don’t water trees, Erin”)—and so forth. I do remember her reminding him, and about in these words. “You’ve always preached to the children that you’ve got to stand square and fight your demons”—so wasn’t this exodus to Shelter Island just the supreme example of how not to face problems? And could he deny her the claim—she was crying, then, and it made me afraid, how hysterical her voice sounded—that he was all for this island move because it would leave him free to spend his time in town, building “your goddamn Geiger,” while the family moldered, safely out from under his feet, in bucolic isolation? I didn’t know what bucolic meant, but I can remember the word because it was said when the flare man came out, much to my delight, for just an instant.
What gives, girl?
I have the distinct sense that he may have invited me to crawl out onto the ledge and give him a kiss goodbye, but that doesn’t sound very flare-man to me, now. That is to say, he wasn’t much of a sentimentalist, more of a performer—so if he did, it would have been in the cause of showmanship, or else to murder me.
“We’re going away.”
Want to see a trick, real neat one?
My mother’s voice came pushing in toward my room, and I did my best to close it and her off, then looked at the flare man again, who tonight was a mustard yellow. “I said we’re going away, didn’t you hear me?”
Well, do you want to see, or not?
“You want to come, too?”
Grace, he said, impatient.
I still don’t understand how imagination works, what it is, what its relation to the body is, because the flare man was so sophisticated, and I, who (surely must have) created him there on his ailanthus branch, so young to have invented this. He flipped himself over onto one skeletal finger of one hand, and balanced there on the branch, then filliped himself to a twig, still aloft on the finger. A wiggly tongue of yellow light streamed from his navel, and he slowly lifted his finger up so that he was balanced on the yellow stream which just barely touched the twig. Arms and legs extended, he turned his face toward mine and a wry smile began to curl across his lips, a wry and yet loving smile. He didn’t say anything, though usually, in my experience with him, he would have said something at about this point during one of his exhibitions, something like, Can you believe this, or, Check this out, or, Am I amazing or am I amazing? Rather, he winked, and seemed to concentrate, then he did something I never thought was possible for him to do. He pulled the yellow light back into his skeleton belly, and turned his head in order to look at me full in the face. He was floating.
I stood there in awe. He knew that I’d seen him do some fantastic tricks before, but never abandon the tree itself. He didn’t brag, though. What he said was this. He said, Open your eyes wide, girl.
Open them, go on.
I opened my eyes.
Then he said, Have you ever cried backwards, Grace?
Cried backwards, listen, it’s great. Open your eyes wide, and don’t move. It’s great, it’s a great way to cry, because nobody can see that you’re crying, just so good to know how to do it, in case you need to do it in the future sometime. So just be still, and what we’re going to do it’ll be really neat.
And he did, he came over, floated to the window, and I was looking straight at him he couldn’t have been more than a few feet away from me (he seemed smaller the closer he got) and he reached out with the tip of his finger toward my eyelid—my eyes were closed and yet I still could see him—and a stream of light came into my eye. My mouth began to fill with liquid light, and he said, Swallow, and I swallowed, it was acrid, and I gulped it down.
See you around, Grace, and I was still gulping when he swam back into the bark of the tree.
We arrived on Shelter Island mid-afternoon. Gray clouds bore into the slate sky above. The ferry wake hypnotized a flow of gulls, and we stared down into the churning, engine-chafed water and watched the loading dock recede. The farmhouse was out past not one, but two causeways, on Ram’s Island, as it was called, along a sparsely built beach road, and faced out to the white ocean. A mild breeze tripped across the flat, and I pulled my hair out of my mouth—there were always to be mist and air moving across the flat of the island here, buffeting the surface of Coecles Inlet and Shanty Bay. Faw and the boys unloaded, while mother fidgeted with her wavy masses of hair. She touched the back of her sturdy hand to her lips, and caught her breath—having rummaged in her purse she realized she’d lost the keys. We stood before the front door on the deep green porch. It didn’t matter about the keys, the door swung open when I pushed against the handle.
Inside the front room were shimmery cobwebs jewelled with flecks of sandy dust. Mrs. Merriam’s possessions were draped with sheets. The downstairs bedroom had been used by squatters. Throughout there were signs of trespass and of trespassers’s lovemaking. A display of nature’s own encroachment took the form of a bald vine which had crept up from the cellar—imitating, it seemed to me, my ailanthus back in New York. It grasped at the maple-snipped sun in the oriel window. What was dingy melded with mystery in my imagination.
“I like it here,” I said.
When I broke away to run upstairs and look out from the balcony to the sea, she said, “Grace, be careful,” and the way she said it made me realize that it was she who was afraid, and so I came back to her, looked at her, and saw she wasn’t able to look at me, so I followed her through the front room toward the kitchen.
Here things were in no better shape. The faux-oriental kitchen linoleum was curling up under its appliances, the appliances were themselves in different states of disrepair—the impertinent Norge stove wheezing gas, the racks in the refrigerator hung with green, tobacco-like beards. The doors to the downstairs rooms would not stay closed, the silver “American”-emblazoned radiators banged and hissed. Even when it seemed like too much, there was more. The upstairs windows, where she went, me still gliding behind, whistled when she opened them, and their sun-grayed lace shook out the dust of who knew how many years of neglect.
“My God,” or something like that—and I said, “Mom, you’ll see, everything will be all right.”
The place was, in a word, uninhabitable, “Uninhabitable,” she said, “Scrub Farm, my eyes!” What else was the poor woman going to say? We have no guarantee of Grace’s improving in a funhouse like this, Charles, she might have said—and it would have been a logical response to the state of the place, its spinning spiders and rotting noises—but she decided to keep her own counsel as best she could, and draw a curtain across her own drifting thoughts, so that neither I nor any of the others would be able to see her too well. Looking back, I can see how it would be possible for her to have made up her mind that very first day, to leave us behind, all of us, for the shackles we had become on her. Sure, it is true she always worked hard to paint scenes of perfect motherhood on that curtain, so I, her daughter and the boys would admire her, which we did. Lord knows, she must have told herself, for our sake, my dear stoic mom, doors can be fixed, windows can be refitted. But when she and I stood there alone in the kitchen, and she pulled back her hair, caught her breath, then pressed the knuckles of one hand tight upon her lips, the very tone of her being was changed. I saw it. She drew herself in, withdrew, retracted. She looked the same, but had become a different woman. When she—we—emerged onto the back porch, and she said, “Have you seen what this, don’t those auction people from the government have some responsibility—” I could hear that it was something she said because it was something she was expected to say, and no more. She might as well have kept on walking, left the porch, left the house, taken herself down the beach road then and there, as go through those ludicrous (that’s too harsh, call them pathetic, or better: overwrought) motions.
Faw knew none of this, of course. “What?” he said, and it was the kind of “what” that means, Spare me, I don’t want to hear it, as he strained to lift trunks and chairs and mattresses down off the truck through the tangle of half-untied lashings.
Berg and Desmond were distracted. I wanted to find out if the sea-worn apples in the orchard, wrinkly as those pony’s balls we saw in Central Park last year, tasted any good after a winter of dangling on the crooked limbs, and Desmond wanted to come, and so did Berg, but they helped father anyway, because he had announced that “this is where you boys are going to become men, and you know what men are?”
“Grown up,” Desmond guessed.
“Men are responsible people, you know what responsibility is?”
“Jesus H. Christ,” Berg talked back, like he did sometimes, even then, and Faw heard him and told Desmond, “Did you hear what your brother said?”
“Yes,” Desmond replied; he hated it when Faw did this, held him up to Berg as some behavior model, when in fact he didn’t want to either be a good boy or bad.
“That’s not what responsibility is.”
“Yes, sir,” with tardy half-closed eyes.
Burke, whom we called Berg because his fingers and toes had poor circulation and were icy to the touch, was 12 that year. He was trying to grow his moustache. He wore his shirts backwards for a time, making me button them up for him. It was a look. As narrow-shouldered, narrow-waisted, and narrow-wristed as he was—all this made him appear at a glance, as a wispy bit of defiance—Berg was strong and limber. Buttoning his shirt on backwards, he’d scissored slits in the front seams at the arm to allow for mobility, was one of the few things he allowed me to do with him. I was just his sister, and fully understood I didn’t count for much, why should I? How could I?
“Can we go back home now?” obnoxious as he could manage.
“Thank you for showing Desmond how men don’t act.”
“Go to,” and Faw, who held the bulk of a rayon-shiny, unwieldy mattress, pushed Berg who tripped over the path rocks shoving back against him. Was it because Berg was a man he didn’t fall down?
Mother went back inside. She disappeared upstairs for an hour, and no one bothered her. Berg went over to the shore by himself, and so Desmond and I worked hard with Faw. By the time the large ocean stars burned between the running clouds that carried brief squalls of tough, short sprinkles, we Brushes had, after our own fashion, moved into Scrub Farm.
One footnote, about that first night, learned by me years later in a letter from my mother. Rain as fine as pencil lead had begun to mark the yard. Erin was in front of the kitchen fire, maybe sewing on someone’s button, maybe not, her feet resting on the brick hearth. My father was helping us with dishes, the well water running cold from both faucets because the heating element had burned out. From where Erin sat she noticed a draft drift along the floor through the room, got up and walked toward the source of this damp, streaming air. What she discovered was that the glass in the mudroom door was broken. No one had gone in that room, yet, a small cul-de-sac of a side room off the pantry. We didn’t pay much attention, we were anxious to be done with our work, and with the long day. She came back into the kitchen, saying nothing, and gathered some sheets of crumpled paper from the heaps which lay everywhere from packing, and left, thinking to tape a sheet over the breach in the glass. She took the flashlight with her, as there was no bulb in the overhead light. Seeing the flashlight, Faw or Desmond or one of us asked if she needed help, but she said she didn’t. Maybe she wanted to be alone again, we thought. When she entered the mudroom, and ran the beam of light over the walls and floor, she saw what had caused the glass to break. At her feet lay the carcass of an enormous bird—a heron, a black-backed gull, perhaps even an osprey, she wasn’t sure—broken on the brick floor, its wings askew and its neck twisted, the sheen of life gone from its feathers.
The poor creature had been there so long that the flesh beneath its feathers was decomposed and its death-scent was gone. She stood there, serene and silent. The reason she had said nothing was she didn’t want me to see. There would be no end to the nightmares it would set off, she had reasoned, not, of course, knowing how little such a sight would have affected me. But what was behind her serenity she couldn’t fathom, her letter explained. She spread sheets of newspaper over it, trying her best neither to touch it nor assign it much meaning—though it was her nature, just as it was Faw’s, to assign every little thing meaning. She put us children to bed, and went to bed herself after listening for a while to her husband, downstairs, in another of the unexplored places of the house, talking to someone on the telephone in his clumsy, confident German.
And, oh—about those orchard apples. They did look from afar like pony balls, but up close resembled the shrunken head that Faw brought back from Brazil once, only bald and without a bone through the nose. They were delicious.
This is an excerpt from the novel, The Almanac Branch just out from Simon & Schuster.
Bradford Morrow’s first novel, Come Sunday, is available from Collier Books. His collection of animal fables came out this spring on Grenfell Press. Bradford Morrow is the editor of Conjunctions.
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