From The Memory Room, a novel.
Background: Barbara, the main character, is in therapy working through childhood events. At the start of each session, before speaking, she traces a loop around the therapy room by running her palm along its four walls.
A Lecture: What Every Buried Child Knows
I dream. I am a buried girl who now is standing,addressing an audience of adults. They listen. They take notes. I am telling them about the dirt.
I wake. It does not feel like a dream. It feels like revelation. I go downstairs, sit at my desk, and write every word the young girl said.
“I’d like to give a lecture, if you don’t mind,” I say after tracing my loop.
“Great!” He sits taller in his chair. I stand, as if behind a podium.
“The lecture is titled, ‘What Every Buried Child Knows.’”
The ducks are on the water. The eucalyptus extends its arm. I clear my throat, straighten my papers and begin.
“If someone looks under a house and sees a mound of dirt moving slowly up and down, with two green and white straws coming out one end, they might say, ‘This is cruelty. That mound breathes so like a human!’
But cruelty is a matter of degree. This is something every buried child knows. When I was under the dirt, my father could not touch me, and afterward there was no blood.
An ordinary person looks through the ripped opening in the foundation of a house, the place where the phone man crawls through to hook up a new line and says,‘That is dirt in there.’ As if dirt were one thing.
But if you are a child and your father is burying you under the house, you tell yourself, ‘Dirt is not one thing, but many.’
The particles of dirt come off the pointed end of the Army shovel onto your arms and legs, and you tell yourself, ‘Dirt is not one thing but many. Each particle is here with me. Each particle counts.’ And in this way, with the dirt, you outnumber your father.
When he presses the dirt onto your legs folded up on your chest, and you feel the cold come in, you tell yourself, ‘The dirt is kind. It wants me to be cold. It wants me not to burn.’
When the dirt falls slowly from your father’s palms carefully onto your face, and you hear his breathing shorten and accelerate, and his eyes become like glass, you know this is the hardest part, because he looks right down at you but doesn’t see you there. And because your head is fixed firm, you are forced to watch him become a person you no longer know. And it is impossible to bear. But between you and your father’s changing face is the dirt. And you make the dirt speak louder than anything else. And you make it say, ‘Watch the way we fall, Barbara. We are coming down onto you gently, the way rain falls onto the fuchsia bush, making the leaves dark green with jags of pewter light.’
And you become the fuchsia bush that stands next to the house. How it waits, as if by prior agreement, for the rain’s gentle touch.
When you hear the muffled sound of your father crawling away, and you feel the dirt tightening on your face like a mask, as if it were one thing, you still make the dirt say, ‘We are not one thing but many, bound together like a mask. Bound together, making a wall between you and your father.’
And you hold onto this as the most important truth around which all other truths must find their place.
And, finally, when the cold moves deeply through your body and you can no longer hold the straws between your teeth, and you feel the pull toward sleep, you find yourself able to say, ‘Dirt is not one thing, but many. And the particles are good.’
And in this way you leave behind the world in the condition you expect it to be. Because, even as a child, you refuse to live in a world where cruelty outnumbers kindness.
Because, even as a child, you demand a moral order. And you create it, if it cannot be found.”
I fold my papers and look up.
His face slackened by tears.
A man outside the market is selling summer lilies in tall frosty cans. I choose the best stems for Josephine.
“You have to baby them, you know,” he advises. “Sometimes they come in so tight, so green. But then they get whiter. You just have to wait.”
Above him the market advertises a sale on Chilean sea bass.
At the back of the store, on the table behind glass, the butcher lays down a very large fish, an opened palm resting on the fish’s side.
“Is that the sea bass?” I ask.
“Yes,” he nods.
There is no blood. None on his apron, the table, his hands.
He makes the first cut, cleanly, from the head down to the tail, swift and elegant. He rolls the silver body a bit more to the side and slides his hand under its head, lifting the full length of silver blue. He treats the fish with a practical reverence. Seeing him do this, my shoulders relax and I breathe easily.
Gingerly he lifts flesh off bone, directly touching its unnamed wounds. Fine creature, up from the dark, its whole life under the surface, unseen. Its stately body, the only evidence of a complete and hidden life.
It is beautiful to see how he knows her.
I watch and I do not cry.
The moon moves behind the clouds, and Josephine’s house is dark. But his music is caught, still in the spaces between the leaves.
There was a painting by Fra Angelico I saw in Italy. “The Annunciation,” painted in Cell 3 of San Marco in Florence. The Angel Gabriel standing on the lefft, Virgin Mary kneeling to the right. An otherwise empty room, the empty walls.
Something I’ve never considered until now, until the Egret, until wrapping myself in white, Lazarus and my outline on the floor, this music coming through my hedge—
I always thought Gabriel came to Mary only once But why? Why have I thought Mary consented that very first time he came through her walls?
I lean deeper into the leaves. Incine myself. The damp the quiet of this night. Perhaps, instead, it was like this:
Mary’s eyes closed, deep in prayer, in meditation. The drape of her dress on the kneeing board. Hands crossed over her breast. Or maybe just reading. Or maybe even asleep. She did not invite him in.
Of course she was terrified. Of course she jumped back and gripped the wall. Threw books at him. Said, “Don’t ask such things of me! To carry a child, unwed. To risk death by stoning.” And he, the difficult child, the unknown one. “No! Get out!”
Perhaps he left. Came back. The Angel Annunciate.
“Stop bothering me!” she might have said. Thinking, If I even listen to you, I will come undone. His light, his voice. As of another world. A world past sand and crow. Past the laundry drying in in the tree. Why did I think it was an easy thing? A moment of terror and then consent. How could it be? Years, years to do that work.
To look into an unknown world, past lake and market smell, the fish, their hammered heads, the thud, that sound of her father working, her mother, grinding almonds between stone, just so, that flick of water from her fingertip, that bit of oil. The paste. The angel leaving, coming again.
Perhaps he learned to make the sound of knocking, learned to wait until she said “Come in,” before he let go his celestial light. His nimbus brighter than the sun. Perhaps he learned to stay on the far side of the room, hands at his sides. His wing against the wall. They eyed their differences. All that lay between, So that, in time, she came to mark the distance on the floor between where he always stood and where she sat. Forty inches and three quarters. A new, unchanging, sacred space. In time, coming to know the shadow on the floor, cast from his light, to be her own. Many times into her room. Perhaps seventy times seven.
Years, years, trying to see how she was separate from her friends, the water in the well the raven her mother’s hand, the dust on the stony ledge. Until she knew her own outline, how could she let another in? “Go! Get out of here!” And he, vacating through the wall. His trace, his feather, on the cold clay floor.
She put it in her basket with the others.
The first ones, when Gabriel was young and confident. Proud of his charge. Proud of his vocation. The cobalt blue, the radiating green of the wing. In those days, when his entrance lit up her room.
Now she barely notices when he is there. His gray wings, travel-worn and weary. The fatigue she sees in his eyes. His clumsiness. A jar knocked over by mistake. His wrinkled, callused feet. His tattered nimbus now a simple crown of fish.
Patient, the patient angel. His weathered wing. His mission not accomplished. His old age, his worry. Shame.
Among the angelic choir, silence when he passes by. The Crazy Angel, they call him, The One Who Doesn’t Give Up. Gray winged, blue eyed. The gentle one. He waits long. Returning. Leaving again. His life that is no longer remarkable. Frayed. Dull.
Did she have a violation? A memory? A wound? A cave inside big enough to hold the problmen child? What wound could this be?
Perhaps only when she remembered it, would there be room.
The day when her work was finished, long, since that first visit when she threw the books, she speaks to him. Knowing to speak louder than before. HIs diminished hearing, his eyes cloudy, the whites yellowed with age. “I have a ripped apart place,” she tells him.
came, a word…
to the eye,
the moist one
“I am ready. I have enough room.”
He raises his tired eyes. He spreads his wings, wide, against the wall. HIs nimbus fills with light.
“Behold,” she instructs him. “See before you, the handmaid of the Lord.”
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