The Shape of Wilderness by Shelley Berc

BOMB 48 Summer 1994
048 Summer 1994

“And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good to eat. A tree of life grew in the garden and also a tree of the knowledge of evil and good. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden and from thence it was parted and became into four heads.”

—Genesis II


To achieve a map you must have a starting point, a referential beginning from which and to all points lead. The maps I had prepared for them calculated not only the distances between physical things; but how far it is between good and evil; admiration and jealousy; love and hate … and I asked upon these maps a thousand geographical questions of humanity like: how is the distance between feeling and thing-felt-about calculated—by time of actual travel or strength of wanting? Does the space separating desire from fulfillment alter when it is covered by creature on foot or air, by need or fear; what is the efficacy of dream when it comes to such traveling; what is the utility of calculating such a distance when it can change as quickly as the conveyance it is propelled upon? Which kind of distance, what source of measurement should I then draw upon the charts of the worlds I am depicting? A book of the cartographer is an almanac of questioning.

But a map—a map must be a solid thing—a manifestation of belief in the evidence of discovery. In a map, in its lines and dots, colors and shading, speculation is transformed into fact, hearsay and clues are illustrated as absolutes, and variables are believed to lie only in the painted indications of the cross currents of air and sea. Except when you bind all the maps of all the worlds together, and then what you have in your hands is a house of contradictions, an atlas of bottomless questioning; that is the book of the cartographer that precedes and extends past all mappings.


from The Book of the Cartographer, sec 1


Part One: Spring
Rose and The Raven


Children’s Story

In the time that was the beginning, this portion of the earth that is now the hotel, was part of a vast ocean. Every living thing there swam or drifted or floated. There were no legs, no arms, nor any voices as we know them now. The cities of this ocean were complex coral bodies that came to life only at night. In fact, at one time the whole world was nocturnal in nature. At night, the algae blew phosphorescent tongues and the anemones crawled out of their cones to feed.

These were the islands of life in the vast, chaotic waters where the sea creatures once danced and where the family now lives. And between these reckoning points, there was nothing but wandering. Back and forth, victims of current, the sea horses, the blue fish, the sharks, were born. And this is everything that is for billions of years.

The daughters of the family who made this place their home were told by their father, whose name was Emmanuel, how the place itself had been made—thrust up by enormous pressure from underneath the sea, pushed away from the origins of itself to become dry land—mountains and canyons, wetlands and flatlands while what was left of the huge inland ocean dribbled into great lakes and rivers and streams. But that was where the same story ended and where he chose to divide his offspring in their knowledge.


The Girl Who Breathed Water

At times the elder of the twins, whose name was Miranda, would imagine herself walking underwater when she’d go walking through the prairies. She would also imagine that she could breathe underwater when she would wake up so many nights in the middle of the night, unable to breathe. She’d think about what Emmanuel, her father, used to say when this happened—that she had to take less oxygen in. Our bodies, he tells her, are the bodies of sea creatures, our lungs are aquatic—they need water to breathe. Our lungs are made of water, if they don’t get enough they make you feel like you’re drowning.

And so, Miranda, awake in the night after a bad dream, would imagine herself falling off a great cliff into the ocean. She would be going down and down, smash the surface and drowning when, suddenly, instead of drowning, she is breathing the sea like it is air, she’s walking around under the ocean like it’s a very populous city, she’s running with the sea creatures like they’re just a bunch of garrulous people. The fish swim by unperturbed, the crabs lumber around, and the coral reefs open their doors to her like exclusive hotels attending a dear customer. She inhales the salt water and beams.

In the daytime, in summer, when the light was like a magnifying glass upon the earth, she would hunt the rocks of the parched riverbed and the red canyon for signs of sea life. She would find the fossils of primeval creatures, by the bone or scale proof of her dreams of walking beneath the sea. There were days at the estate that her parents had built when she would be submerged in the aqueous mystery and it seemed to her that the tree lions were giant crustaceans, and the garden snakes were sharks, and the fast deer were damsel fish, the moss algae, the trees in the wind a form of algae, and she, herself, a parrot fish chomping away at the eaves of a coral city that was their home, this hotel.


The Hotel

It was a house, like a city.
A dream and a fortress.
     Thin air and substance.
You’d get lost in its variety;
from room to room, you’d forget who you are.

It was a house (like a city)
built for the multitudes,
for all their thought, all their feeling.
The expression of the people, fantasy willed into fact.
House like a city—for the people.
     An American Hotel.

The rooms ranged like the prairies.
Faucets running like great rivers,
flushing into basins, copper pipes joining everything—
a blood stream really—so no one ever had to be thirsty, never had
             to go dirty.
The bedrooms winking at each other, proud of their brass hinges,
             their iron
locks, their substantial solitude.
Each man woman and child could feel themselves the only ever
             inhabitant and
no such thing like guest like servant like interloper.
No! An American Hotel was home for the people
      for whom home was forever on the move.

The public rooms—God! Variety!
Greek fountains, Egyptian terrace.
Medieval Dining Tapestry Piano Room Louis XIV ballroom
     and the New England in the Chapel and the Rockies in the
     Grand Prairies of the verandah, Tahiti solarium.
Hallways promising the Great Divide.

A house like a city of ages,
excavated through time and living in all times.
Even the future time,
     even the non-existent one.
     Ready to disappear in a moment.
House like a Palace—for the people—an American Hotel.


The Girl who Breathed Dirt

But the father had told the younger twin, whose name was Rose, a story of the place’s origin that was as different as night and day from what he told her sister.

To this daughter, he said:

“The place where we are living has always been rock mounds and will always be rock mounds. Formed from the eruption of molten stone far below the world’s surface shell, the earth mounds exploded up in the shapes of wild beasts—mountain lion, jackal and boar, bobcat and coyote—distinguished by the rivers that flowed through them, the acrid waters sweated from the friction of their rock bodies.

“It is only from the sky that the mounds take on their true form—the bulls and bears and leopards of stone—close up they look like any old kind of rock. I have seen them from up there. Why I came. You must trust me on this.

“We, too, come from rocks. The bones of our bodies are rocks, of course, but so is our skin the pulverized rock that is sand and our liver and heart and tongue the congealed rock that is molten magma and so is our brain, the frozen rock that is glacier. All in all man is metamorphic rock, all in all, he is always hard, always changing with the pressures exerted from the earth. And the rocks were the shapes of animals because animals, too, are rock and preserved thus in the world, living fossils and dead. You must always breathe dust to breathe at all for you are made of dust, the purest rock of all.”

So the two twins, Miranda, the oldest and Rose, the younger one, lived in different places within the same place and breathed different substances in order to survive. Miranda believed that she was at root aquatic. Rose believed at the bottom of her heart she was rock.

So the father told the two sisters two different stories and accordingly they grew, while he began to fade away, because he believed that the world’s composition was something other than what he told his children; that a body needed something different from dirt or air or water to breathe, that what a man needed to live on was dreams. And this is why, though he loved them, he had to keep on leaving them.


The Morning of Their 15th Birthday

“Happy Birthday, child,” said her mother, gently shaking the girl awake and leaving behind a large rectangular box as she swept noiselessly out the door. Rose opened her eyes slowly, hoping to merge the world of her dreams with this very promising materiality moored by her pillow. She squinted one eye open, then the other, watching the mystery box grow with the expansion of her vision. The gift had a gold sateen ribbon looped around it, culminating dead center in a luscious bow. She tore the construction apart with less respect than a tiger for its breakfast.

“Ohhhh,” she gasped.

It lay on a bed of rainbow colored tissue paper onto which someone had painstakingly glued hundreds of opalescent star and moon shaped sequins. Rose’s hands, always suspicious, felt around to make sure it was her right size. It was and new. The dress was blush colored and nearly grown-up length—it hit a hand’s breadth above the ankle and best of all, it moved. Three layers of fabric made it up—a crinoline topped by a taffeta and over that, an embossed satin. Rose had struggled halfway in, one leg dangling out like a fisherman’s oar; she hopped over to the vanity’s three beveled mirrors and stared. The trim. She could not believe the trim! It was lace, and silk, and grosgrain, with a fat burgundy sash that stretched from waist to chest and mounted in an enormous ballroom bow at the back. The sleeves came down exactly to the bone at the wrist where they reared up in curvaceous cuffs that were ivory Alsatian lace, figured with swans swimming in a pond. The bodice was a bower of flowers made from gathered-in ribbons of a dozen hues of red and in the center of each, tiny and delicately shriveled, was an absolutely perfect dried rose. The hips were beset with ruby glass beading describing a Turkish parlor, replete with miniature chandeliers and Persian rugs. The hem was lightly tapestried with a scene of bowmen hunting a deer. By now, Rose had the gown all the way on and was staring around herself like a cat chasing its tail. Buttoning up the final buttons, that went by tiny increments all the way to the back of her head, she gazed down tentatively at the neckline. It was cut high but it was translucent, a Swiss polka dot net that reached to the start of her new breasts.

The door cracked open and she heard the laughter of her mother and Emerald, their housekeeper. She thought she heard her mother say, “You were right, that pink goes just fine with her red head.” And she thought she heard Emerald laugh and laugh behind her hands. They must have been spying the whole time, concluded the girl as she stepped away from the mirror. She knew that the small careful stitches that held the confection together, the way a trail holds off the wilderness, was the work of their accomplished hands. “How could they not look,” she reasoned gleefully.

It was her first best dress.


The Birthday Feast

The breakfast room was Rose’s favorite place in the house, for it seemed as much outside as in. It was a glass room with very little in the way of opaque walls. Cora had decorated it with scores of tropical succulents, causing it to look more nature-like than the land you could see out the window which was all fastidiously manicured.

When the girl in the party frock galloped in, her eyes bright as leaded goblets, she found the table set with the best silver—a curious set of diaphanous sea nymphs whose scaly bosoms wrapped suggestively around the place where you held the instrument, with the tails wrapped around the place where you put your mouth. Their human-like faces were very expressive; Rose always fancied they showed how they felt about every meal. Her mother had set the table, too, with their finest eggshell Limoges which was painted with wild flowers along the real gold-trimmed borders and the phases of the moon in the middle of each cup, bowl, and plate which when the sun hit, dissolved the porcelain into sheer air, which made a person feel as if he was eating off air, too.

A large yellow tureen stood in the middle of the table, filled with a cold cherry soup, and a tall vase of red poppies bent over it, like a shade tree over a lake. A girl alone sat at the far end of the table, waiting patiently for the rest. She sat with her black curls obscuring her long, thin face and her dark eyes, eyes that bounced a body’s look back on itself, staring vacantly, half-turned to the window from which could be seen an old wooden swing hanging from a willow tree. It was as if the young woman was trying to keep an eye both outside and in and, while attempting to do so, had gone off and forgotten both.

“Miranda, Miranda, happy birthday! Well, aren’t you going to wish me something?” demanded the girl of the dreamer. “Don’t you remember what day it is?”

The young woman roused herself from her reverie, held out her long arms stiffly and kissed Rose’s cheek. “Happy Birthday,” she said absent mindedly and went back to her silence.

At first, and last, you would not believe they were twins or even blood sisters; they seemed in body and gesture so unlike. Rose had red hair, the color of a terrible sunburn, an olive complexion that was a field of pimples, legs like sticks, interrupted only by a pair of tragically knobby knees, though all in all she was a little obese. In addition, she was underdeveloped for a girl just turned 15; her breasts were insignificant nubs and her midriff still rolled with baby fat. Her sister, on the contrary, was a willowy, ripe thing. Her aquiline nose, her pitch black hair, her waist, her legs were the quintessence of long, slender, and sleek. Her face was luminously transparent. Everything about the girl exuded a see-through quality and when she walked out at dusk in her dove gray dress and white challis shawl, people often took her for a ghost. While the younger twin hardly looked 12, the elder one could easily pass for 20.

Unlike Rose, who was at this moment attempting to maintain a stationary sitting position in the midst of the oceanic ruffles of her very first ever best dress, Miranda never wore anything but. They were all very elegant and unfashionable, as if she had modeled herself after the women’s magazines of a bygone era. Her skirts always swept the floor and it seemed as if the many folds of material playing the length of her long, angular body existed solely on earth to glorify her majesty, to cause the wind, the sun, the moonlight, and the rain to pay her homage. She always looked as if she were personally escorted by the natural elements. Even now as she sat quietly in her wooden chair, the sun illumined her profile and a breeze rippled through her pearly gray chemise. As plain and ungainly as Rose appeared, Miranda was known far and wide to be a beauty, but heartless, as heartless as a stone. It was said that she had no human heart at all in her chest, but that of an old gypsy sorceress who had once come begging at the hotel. Some folks even said that Miranda’s gypsy heart went flying around at night without her and a body could see it pumping its way through the sky or hip-hopping through the neighbor’s farm fields.

Miranda herself never thought much about her heart, perhaps because she seemed to suffer so much in her soul, which she was sure was a different thing entirely. Sometimes, when she caught a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror, she wondered at the vacant stare that came back at her. She knew though, through her own experience, that the soul is not found in the eyes but lies invisible some place else in the body, where it moves around like a shy nomad and you were damn lucky if you caught sight of it once or twice in your whole life. Most of the time, she reasoned, it puts you to sleep before it goes off expressing itself—making up day dreams or nightmares which only leave you clammy and shivering when you try to remember what they were.

She thought, perhaps, the surest way to see the workings of the soul without seeing its elusive being was to observe the fingers of one’s hands. Hers were often frenetically animated—scratching, stabbing, tapping, curling, twisting, flinching. They told her that her soul was alive, all the while the rest of her stood still as death.

She had hands like ivory, the veins came up rich as oil from the wrists in a congress of knots. The fingers were long and birdlike in their fidgety what-to-do, what-to-do-ness. They moved with a beaten expression, an expression of torture and of shame, all day as she made the beds, milked the cow, fed the chicks, scrubbed the hall; her hands busy as bees, moved fast, so fast, trying not to be seen. There were scabs and there were tears, bloody places daubed with cotton balls and the deepest cuts blindfolded with bandages of gauze. She scratched hard at the skin around the joints and tore back the cuticles hiding the dusty pink half moons rising on her nails so that her pain became at least a physical sensation rather than an agonizing apparition that walked unpredictably inside her. After all, she had enough of that uncertainty with her alien heart. She hid her hands, the home of her soul, because she believed that the soul must be concealed or it would hide from its owner forever. Then, too, she had made them so ugly, disfigured them so irrevocably. She held them in an embryonic position, curled until the fingertips practically touched the wrists. The hands began to resemble not hands at all but those transparent glass balls found shouldering the weight of heavy claw footed furnishings. She usually wore gloves which, covering her mutilations, showed off the slender tapering splendor of her hands. In the winter when she was not much at chores, she wore cream colored kid ones with jet buttons at the wrist, in the warmer months she favored open weave crochets in a feast of colors—lavender, rose, alfalfa green, and larkspur blue. The reddened, rashed skin, peeking through the weaving looked like a latticed strawberry patch. Her mother saw the work of nails and teeth upon her child’s flesh and tried to stop her with bitter creams repugnant to the taste and wax casts that could neither be bitten nor torn off but Miranda always found a way out of them, pressed hard by the heart and soul that fought inside. After a while Cora gave up and just begged the girl to keep her wounds clean.

Today, the day of her 15th birthday, the hands were sprinkled with lilac water and essence of lilies. Miranda held them out and drew her sister to her.

“Yes,” she said, “Happy Birthday,” kissing Rose’s ear and showing off the gold ornament around her neck, “this is the gift mother gave me.”

They were both looking expectantly towards the swinging kitchen door when it flew open. A pile of silver domed dishes paraded out; seemingly on their own immense steam; but soon the ambulation was revealed to have feet and stockings. The figures of Cora and Emerald were made out doing the carrying; they were singing “Happy Birthday Happy Birthday Happy Birthday” over and over, as if they did not know the rest of the tune, which they did not.

Rose watched her mother’s face appear over the steaming platters. She was smiling and nodding her thin oval face which was home to her extraordinary eyes—a swirl of gray and green chips, separated by seams of deep blue, making the irises look like a glass mosaic. To Rose, they seemed as if they knew what she was doing at every moment, all the time, even in the future of her life.

“Happy Birthday, Miranda,” she said and a huge plate of eggs landed beside her. “Happy Birthday, Rose,” and rashers of bacon piled several inches deep took their place on the table. Then there were the delicacies that Emerald made—the scones, plain and with currants, the potted creams and whole berry jams to put on those scones, fresh churned butter, lime jelly, rose hip jam, steak, and kippers, french toast, maple syrup, hollandaise, berenaise, several pounds of baby white asparagus; there was orange juice, banana juice, and apricot nectar, fresh coffee, hot chocolate, English tea, French champagne, and the birthday cake which was a pink replica of their beloved hotel.

Emerald, who took care of them all, handed each girl a big, badly wrapped package. Inside hers, Rose found some new stuffed animals for her extensive collection.

“Hope you’re not too big a girl now to like such stuff,” ventured the woman who had just made the green velvet anteater and the golden jacquard giraffe.

“Oh no,” said Rose, hugging the creatures to her breast. She began to think about Trapper, the man they rented the old shed in the yard. His stuffed animals were something else all together with their real fur and paws and wings and teeth. Compared to them, her toy animals had begun to seem so artificial, babyish. Trapper wasn’t there for the birthday party—her mother had refused to invite him, saying he wouldn’t know how to sit at a proper table to eat.

Looking out the breakfast room window to the mountains that rimmed their valley, Rose was filled with a sense of great warmth and greater security. Nothing had ever harmed her here and consequently she had never come to know fear, although it was hardly a stranger to the other inhabitants of the Hotel. The fear in her family was as familiar to her as their voices—it was almost an individual to her, a presence she thought she should save a piece of birthday cake for. But like a child growing up among lepers, she seemed to have a natural immunity against the disease and she watched it in others with a scientific sort of detached curiosity. She wondered at its exoticism and secretly hoped to develop it herself later in life, as one develops breasts and body hair and the ability to reproduce the species. She figured fear was a feature of maturation.

“Blow out the candles, dears,” their mother coaxed.

From opposite sides of the table, the sisters faced each other and blew. Rose’s cheeks puffed out, her eyes bowed down, she followed the rage of her breath around the burning circle on top of the cake and in one blow extinguished them all. There was much applause and Miranda picked up the silver cake knife and began jaggedly cutting.

“Pass the plates, please,” said Rose as she picked off the blown candles and all the wax that was dripping down.


Shelley Berc is a writer of fiction, performance pieces, and plays. The Shape of Wilderness, from which this is excerpted, is her most recent work. Her performance piece, A Girls Guide to the Divine Comedy, is to be published this winter in Performing Arts Journal’s Anthology, Word Plays 6. She lives in Iowa City with her husband, multi-media artist Alejandro Fogel with whom she is developing a travel/performance series called Re:Place.

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Originally published in

BOMB 48, Summer 1994

Featuring interviews with Eric Bogosian, Rick Moody, bell hooks, Dennis Cooper, Jack Whitten, Michel Auder, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Thome, Keith Antar Mason, and Allison Anders.

Read the issue
048 Summer 1994