Selected Writings of Robert B. Gentry
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How shall I grasp it? Do not grasp it. That which remains
when there is no more grasping is the Self.
When they arrived, the pier was foggy and looked deserted. The boy took a worm out of his can and started to bait his hook. It wiggled out of his hands, fell straight through a crack and down into the dark sea. He fumbled with another worm. It wriggled furiously.
She cupped her hands under his. The worm broke free; she caught it, her fingers tremulous. She was afraid she would squash it and mess her hands.
"Can you get it on the hook, Mom?"
Paul had shown her how to thread worms. She had even done it once but detested the operation. She hoped this worm would escape too, but there were more in Brian's can. Like it or not, today she would have to meet the worm test. This worm's writhing slowed to mild squirming. She opened her cage a bit and gave it more room. She felt more in control now, her hands calmer. The worm slithered rubbery and cool up a palm. It tickled the cleft between her fore and middle fingers, penetrated the split and peeped out between the fingers; she caught it in a soft squeeze. It started writhing again, tingling her hand, shooting prickles up her arm, arousing nerves that sent her into a slight shiver. She wanted to let it go now.
She tried to hook the worm. It almost got free. She tried again and missed. She missed twice more. Then she got it. She slowly squished the worm up the hook. She wanted to stop, but she kept at it. She gagged and faked a cough. Just as she finished the impaling, a wild thing suddenly broke loose inside her and madly clawed from her breastbone to the pit of her stomach. The wild thing vanished as quickly as it had come.
Brian started casting and reeling the way his dad had taught him. She wiped her hands on a towel. The life had gone out of her hands as it had earlier that morning when they were scratching under wet leaves in the backyard, mother and son skinning the dark earth, digging up worms, and she wondered about Paul and her hands went numb.
A year ago she had sat on this same bench. It was a sunny day then. Now she shifted her gaze from Brian to waves breaking through the haze and slapping the beach where a few figures froze in a faded picture. It had been over a year since she sold her last painting. She had begun a few studies but had torn them up. She had not been sleeping well. She thought about seeing a doctor. This morning she had been tossing, trying to get back to sleep, hoping that Brian would sleep late and let her rest when he rushed into the room.
"Mom, Mom, Santa gave me a big fishing box. Let's go fishing like with Dad!"
"Not today," she yawned.
"We'll bundle up good."
"Fish won't be biting."
"How do you know they won't?"
"Bait shop's closed." The boy hung his head and stared at the floor.
"Oh, we'll go."
"Okay! All right!"
I'm a fish, she thought, caught by his enthusiasm, hooked by his bright eyes, pulling me out of this warm bed into the cold.
She wondered what bait had hooked her when on impulse she'd bought the tackle box. Maybe just to complement Brian's fishing rod, or to replace the box that had been smashed. She really wasn't sure why. She wished now that she hadn't bought it.
She remembered last Christmas when Brian spotted his gift under the tree. "A fishing rod! Sweet!"
"Sweet!" The word that Brian always used when he was really thrilled about something. She smiled.
"Brian, it's Christmas in sunny Florida and Santa wants you to use your gift today," his dad had said. "Right after church we'll go to the pier and catch the big one!"
"All right, Dad! All right!"
Paul had surprised them with the fishing trip. He had bought the bait the day before. Just the right mix of organization and spontaneity! She loved that in him. How eager she was to go to the pier then!
This Christmas morning she just wanted to sleep. But she couldn't disappoint Brian, especially since this year Santa had brought so few things. So she dragged herself out of bed and packed the same picnic lunch they had last year.
"What about bait, Mom?" Paul had used worms for lake fishing. Maybe they would do for sea fishing. Well, worms would have to do.
At the pier now she tried to clear her mind. She wanted to stop recollecting, to stop thinking. She focused on the waves, imagining she were a wave, just rolling in, rolling out.
"Sweet!" Brian's favorite word again. She glanced at the boy, then back at the waves. She tried staring at white caps.
She asked herself how this Christmas could possibly be "sweet." The question chilled her more than the wind.
"Sister Sebastian!" She hadn't thought of Sister Sebastian in years. Now she saw her again at the intersection, heard the nun's whistle signaling the end of recess. She saw herself and her eighth grade class queuing again, crossing at the green light, the rain falling in a sudden torrent, the red flash swerving out of nowhere, tires screaming, and she knew Marty O'Connor was usually last in the recess line, always the last to stop laughing and having fun; now she saw him in the street, lying face down.
She fought the thought of Marty. She glanced at Brian casting out again. A young version of his father fishing! That's how well he had learned from Paul. She fought this thought too. She wished Brian would catch something, anything.
She glanced at a white cap as it rushed in, rising high, flipping. She glanced at another cap, raised her hand, and stroked the wave on her imaginary canvas. She tried to capture another one, but her hand fell limp as the wave came crashing, splashing to running foam, slowly oozing, swelling to bubbles that burst.
She covered her face with her hands. Why hadn't she worn gloves? She wanted her face to warm her hands, but her face was as cold as her hands.
She remembered the rain stopping as fast as it started, like the wild thing she'd felt when she impaled the worm. She saw the sheet, the men strapping it to the litter, the sheet immediately stained, red spreading on the stark white cloth, doors thrown open, litter sliding in, doors slamming and the ambulance pulling away slowly, bearing Marty's body down the hazy, rain-slick street.
She saw her classmates seated at hard wooden desks, shocked, confused, some of them sobbing. She was too shocked to cry. She saw Sister Sebastian in front of the class, standing straight and calm as she always did, her hands folded at the waist as they always were when she had something serious to say. But this time her hands were folded knuckle white. For a moment or two she said nothing, just stared right through the class as if she saw something strange in the distance. Then the flicker, the soft glimmer of the nun's sad smile.
She wondered now if Sister Sebastian had had some kind of vision or hallucination. Or maybe the nun could have been struggling with something that she herself was not sure of but was determined to make herself certain of.
She opened her hands and felt the wind smack her face. The wind was getting colder. She wished it were as warm now as it had been on the pier the Christmas before. If it had been as cold then as it was now and she'd forgotten her gloves, she knew that Paul would have given her his gloves. She smiled at the thought of her hands loose in his big gloves, flopping them at him, he laughing, "Don't let the cold air in!"
Now she buried her face in her hands. Blood warming blood.
She couldn't remember how Sister Sebastian had broken the silence after staring into the distance. All that she could recall was the nun's words just before she led the students to the church next door to join the rest of the school in prayer for Marty: "God works in mysterious ways! We must have faith in God! It's all we can count on. In the end all we really have is faith."
The words had comforted her then. Right now she just wondered why they had come to mind. Paul was the devout believer.
Paul, I went through the ritual for you and Brian. I feel guilty about not taking Brian to church. But if I force church, Brian will start seeing through that. He might become cynical. Maybe I'm making excuses. Maybe I'm selfish. No, I'm just being honest. I think I hear your answer:
You're not the only one who counts here. There's Brian.
Brian hasn't brought up church in a year. Did it make so little impression on him? Has your devotion had little effect on him? How can I know what Brian's gaining spiritually, what he's losing, maybe already lost?
Trust in God. Pray that he will renew your faith in the Church. With renewed faith your light will shine in Brian.
Oh, Paul, it's not just a matter of belief or disbelief in churches and creeds. It's not just that God is a stern father, wise sage or miraculous savior. If it's only that personal, right now I might be very angry with Him...or Her...or It. It's not just splitting God up into all things, either. I don't really know what It is, or if It even exists. How can I explain to Brian what I can't explain to myself? Maybe I shouldn't even try to explain.
Yes, you should, but you need God to do it. Don't give up on Him! Don't give up on His church!
I can't go through the motions anymore, Paul. I wasn't completely honest with you before. I didn't share with you a lot of my thoughts and doubts. I'm sorry. I was afraid of hurting the marriage. Do you understand now? It doesn't matter. I love you.
She uncovered her face and saw a man fishing a few yards from Brian. She hadn't seen him when they first arrived. She didn't see him come on the pier. Maybe he had been fishing behind a post. His shaggy hair fell in thick gray strings to his shoulders. His beard was scruffy, lumberjack shirt faded, jeans dirty, cuffs ragged, sneakers worn.
A drunk, she thought, or maybe just an old man down and out. But that ball cap looks so white it glows. Where did he steal it?
"Mom, I can't catch anything."
"Let's have lunch," she said. "The fish will see us eating and get hungry." The man glanced their way with a smirk. Or was it a smile? She couldn't tell. She looked away. She felt sheepish, silly, an affectionate mother trying to gloss over her ignorance of fishing.
She looked at the man's dirty jeans. She felt like saying, I feel for you. I'm not working. Only a few savings keep us off the streets. Then something in her wanted to blurt out, Go away old man! I don't want to be like you.
But she said nothing, ate nothing. Brian wolfed down his lunch. A pelican swooped down and perched on the rail. She stared right through it. Brian flipped a turkey bit. The pelican snapped it up.
"Don't feed the birds or we'll leave."
"I'm playing like he's Big Bird, mom. Birds get hungry like we do."
The man definitely smiled this time. She blushed. She hoped Brian would feed the bird again so she'd have an excuse to leave. But she didn't want to make a scene. Guilt slapped her. She really didn't want to leave until Brian caught something, anything.
But what if he didn't catch anything? She knew that she could do nothing but smile and make some empty comment like, You'll have better luck next time.
Now she saw the trip as a risk, something that could leave Brian and her disillusioned. She wondered why she hadn't thought of that risk before she agreed to go.
Church bells started ringing in the distance. St. Thomas By The Sea (the church she used to attend) was beginning its Christmas service.
Brian went back to fishing. She sipped the cocoa as she had done last Christmas when Paul had said, "Brian, I'm going to show you how to catch the first one. Then you catch all the rest yourself."
When Paul had first raised the rod, she marveled at how sleek and firm it looked. But when he pulled it back and the sinker's weight bent it slightly, she felt a stab of disappointment. She feared it wouldn't work—as if the appearance of the rod were one thing and the reality another. Then he gave it a flip and sent his long line flying out into the ocean and she felt the power and thrill of his cast, and, oh, how wonderful the cocoa tasted then as it did today, how it warmed her then as it warmed her now, the taste sweet, the memory of marriage and family a thousand times sweeter.
I feel like giving my sandwich to that man, she thought. He's so thin. I wonder when he last had a good meal.
She reached in the basket for the sandwich and remembered a recent dream about a huge box locked tight. She'd dreamt she took a crowbar and pried open the lid. She probed inside the dark box, digging through material that she couldn't see but which tingled her fingers with the feeling of light straw, reaching deeper entangling her hand in something gossamery, moist, like strands of a wet web, the strands getting more viscous the deeper she dug, her hand impastoed, grasping something like a pencil that changed to something like a branch—a smooth birch branch like she'd loved to feel in the North—the branch becoming bristles, like those of one of her paint brushes, she softly stroking the bristles down the shaft, firm like her brush but bigger like the handle of a house painter's brush, this handle suddenly expanding, outgrowing her grasp, she like a child with a tiny hand touching a mighty post—then feeling nothing, grasping air.
Then memory put her back in the elevator the week before when a man got on, smiled and said, "Good morning!" She returned the greeting and stared at his reflection in the shiny door: thirtysomething, about her age, well-dressed, a little stout, balding, not really handsome but not unattractive, his face rather bland. I'd like to say more than "Good morning," she had thought then. I don't how to begin. Do I dare talk weather? I don't know what to say. I'd just like to start talking, just talk about anything. But she didn't.What a striking contrast the elevator man was to the man fishing now.
She pictured the fisherman stooped in the street, feebly holding a sign "Will Work for Food."
Then he jerked his line, stood erect and began reeling, and she saw Paul again reeling in a white blur streaking through the water. The man was pulling up a fish. It was a big fish, but she just glanced at it. She really didn't want to look at it. All she wanted was for Brian to catch something.
The sun was trying to break through the haze. Church bells rang a medley of carols that sounded discordant in wind that whistled now.
How do I raise this boy alone? She whispered, staring at the olive drab water.
"Is that a red bass?" Brian asked the man.
"I caught one just like that last Christmas. My dad caught one, too, but he got killed in a wreck New Year's. I'd sure like to catch another one."
Hush! she thought. Don't say that! Oh yes, do! Reach out to him! Tell him what I dare not say!
"Worms won't do," the man said in a deep voice. He handed the boy a piece of live shrimp. "Whoa, get that old worm off first!" He helped Brian bait the hook, his gnarled fingers working as nimbly as those of a pianist.
She pictured him in a painting, a weathered folk singer, playing a guitar, viewers stopping to look at him, one saying, "He looks like he's singing a song about the sea!" This kind of piece she thought trite, but she had done the type because of financial need. She had created much better works, too, and had sold a few these. She liked to believe there was a market for the art she really wanted to do.
Brian fished a while. Still no luck. She started packing up to leave.
"Steady," the man said. "Don't jerk him. Pull him in strong and easy. C'mon, fish, choose this boy!"
She jumped up and grabbed the rail as the fish broke the water—up, up the boy reeled it flipping and flashing toward the man's outstretched hand when suddenly wings filled the sky, wings flapping wildly pulling rod and boy down the pier, the man running, catching, hugging Brian, telling him to "hold tight," the pelican zig-zagging in crazy flight, its bill clamped like death on fish and line and the world had gone absurd as it did when the somber voice said, "I'm very sorry to inform you that your husband was in an accident and he—" but she couldn't finish that thought now—she couldn't cry then—something froze her then—"Hold tight, son! Hold tight!"—now it froze her again—"Gotta let him go!" the man cried whipping out his knife, cutting the bird free—it dropped under the pier—she reeled away screaming inside, gasping.
The next thing she remembered was sitting on the bench, man and boy hovering over her.
"How you feel?" the man asked.
She stared into his brown eyes.
"I'm sorry that bird got the boy's fish," he said.
"Everything dies," she said. Brian looked stunned.
The bells rang out "Adeste Fidelis." Right above the man a sea gull drifted in the soft breeze. The man reached in his cooler and came out with the bass in both hands, two fingers hooked in the gill. He raised the fish as if he were offering it to the sun. "He's a beauty!" the man said.
But it struck her as strange. A fish out of water like some ideal hidden deep in the unconscious and suddenly thrust into the mind's light, yet still mysterious. This fish, big, voluptuous in his hands—yet a speck of meat against the vast sky! This bass a metamorphosis, sun-bathed in soothing beige, a flare of radiant white, flecks of fleeting gold like gleams of a ciborium in streams of light!
So still, she thought, so dead.
The fish quivered. The gull dropped down and floated just above the man's head. Her stomach felt like frozen needles. She had the sudden urge to touch something, anything. She looked away, fumbling with her lunch basket.
"Open your cooler, son!" the man said. Brian lifted the lid. She saw the man gently lower the bass into Brian's cooler. She jerked open the basket, grabbed her sandwich.
"Your hand's shakin'! You okay?" the fisherman said.
"I was afraid that sea gull was going to attack your fish. Two steals in one day! Too much!"
"Seems like everything's hungry today!" the man said. She couldn't read his eyes.
"It's so nice of you to do that for Brian. Please take this sandwich! I'm really not hungry."
"Thanks! Breakfast was a little slim!"
"Merry Christmas!" she said.
"Only choice I got! You have a very merry Christmas!" His smile was as inscrutable as his eyes. He seemed younger than she had thought.
She and Brian thanked him and said goodbye. He shook the boy's hand. Brian gave him a big grin.
The sun warmed and soothed her. The sea shimmered emerald green as the waves rose and fell with the rhythm of the caroling bells. A lovely calm came over her. She heard again the chancel bells of Immaculate Conception Church, and she was in the eighth grade standing in the loft guided by Sister Sebastian who was leading the choir at the start of Midnight Mass when the church lights dimmed down to almost dark, and Father Murray was leading the procession down the nave and candles were shining brightly on the altar decked with lush, green wreaths and poinsettias royal red, and the sequined robes of the priests in gold trim glistening and candles flickering in the hands of the altar boys marching solemnly behind Father Murray and his deacons and the steady flame of the candle in the choir loft which Sister Sebastian had lit in memory of Marty O'Connor who, had he not been buried the week before, would have been the chief acolyte marching down that aisle, lightly swinging the censer of incense, and she loved the aroma of incense. She felt the whole church filled with Marty's soul.
And she heard Marty again at recess whispering to her, "You're my girl. Did you know that? Next year when we get to high school, can we start dating?" "Yes!" she said. With all her heart she cried, "Yes!" And when she fell in love with Paul she fancied him an older version of Marty, but she really didn't resurrect Marty in Paul.
Marty was dead and Father Murray was dead and Paul was dead and she didn't know where Sister Sebastian was. She was probably dead, too. But she tried to recreate Sister Sebastian as she was then at Midnight Mass leading the choir with those graceful hands, the lithe, elegant fingers that told her beads so gently, her face pure complexion, her cheeks softly glowing into that wide, warm smile, and she thrilled at Sister Sebastian's soprano rising in sweet sonority and again she was one with nun and choir and they were ringing the church in glorious song, and their hearts were filled with triumphant joy:
"Adeste fidelis, laeti triumphantes; venite, venite..." Then memory failed and the Latin died.
They stepped off the pier and plodded through the sand toward their car. A gull drifted a few feet above them. Brian jumped up and poked his rod at the bird. The gull floated higher.
"Big Bird won't come down." Brian's sly grin twisted into a grimace. The gull looked suspended in air. The boy jumped and thrust again. He kept jumping up and down, jabbing wickedly at the bird, which stayed out of range but looked directly down on them.
If birds have a sense of humor, she thought, that one's surely having fun now. I should tell him to stop jabbing. Why is he calling it "Big Bird"? The same name he gave the pelican that stole his fish. Is he mad at birds?
"Brian, suppose a long time ago God was a painter, and he wanted to make the first sea gull in the world. He wanted to make a beautiful bird like that one up there. How do you think God would draw the bird?"
Brian quit jumping, out of breath. He began gurgling at the bird. He was really hamming it up.
"Well, if you're going to talk gull talk, say, "Ack, ack!" She smiled.
Brian let fly a few "acks." The bird floated in the same spot. It looked so still. She thrilled at motion and no motion.
"Well, how would God color that bird?"
"Uh, white like it is now."
"What about white as down?"
"Down is really soft, fluffy feathers. If you touch that bird with your hand, you'd feel its feathers. The feathers would feel soft, but they'd feel hard too because a bird's feathers have barbs and shafts which feel hard."
"I don't want to jump after him anymore."
She chuckled, thinking he might tire more from her explanations than from jumping.
"Let's finish coloring the bird. Look really close now! Is the bird all white?"
"No, he has black on his wings."
"What parts of the wings are black?" She made a sketching motion of one wing. Brian pointed at one wing then the other. "The edges."
"Yes, the edges are black as deep ebony." She traced the other wing.
"Ebony's another word for black. See how dark the bird's wing tips are? Really a rich black, isn't it? Black and white the only colors you see?" She sketched again as if she were stroking the bird's head. It fluttered.
"Yes, some silver gray, isn't it?"
"There he goes. Bye, bird!" Brian said as the gull flew toward the bells ringing "Joy to the World," then curved sharply back to sea.
"I wish I could fly like that bird," said Brian.
"Yes, I wish you and I both were flying in the sun like that bird. Let's keep watching it, see where it goes."
They soon lost sight of the bird in a covey of gulls. Her wish faded.
When they got home, Brian wanted to have the Christmas catch for dinner. So she cleaned the fish the way Paul had taught her, and she fileted it the way they had liked it. She slid it in the oven and felt the feeling coming on. She looked out the kitchen window and saw Brian playing in the backyard.
She turned away from the window, eased into a chair at the kitchen table. She rested her head on the table and sobbed. She hadn't cried in a long time. She wiped the tears on her sleeve. She was usually neat, even meticulous, except when she painted. Now she chuckled at messing the sleeve as if it were a new act of freedom she needed to do just now. She returned to the window and watched Brian. He was casting, practicing with rod and reel the way Paul had taught him.
She went into the room which she and Paul had shared: he for drafting, she for painting.
The camellia was budding. One bloom was already a deep blush, a full flower as big a child's hand. She stared at the flower and wished it were even closer to the window. She imagined the wind rustling the blossom just right so that it touched the glass without losing any of its petals. Then she could open the window and peer deep into the bloom. She would marvel at the petals as her gaze absorbed their color, flowed into the stamen down into the green of the stem, deeper still until her eyes became her whole being fused with the force of flower, the power of root and limb, the faith of Sister Sebastian and the love of Paul, all of it one blessed ONE.
But she couldn't hold the image. It broke back into subject and object divided by window.
She thought how wonderful it would be to stop making distinctions, to stop clinging to people and things, to stop damming up the stream of life, just to flow with it, to go wherever it carried her. Yet here she was the subject wondering if the object, this camellia, were a sign of better times ahead.
She thought of the fisherman. What did he mean—a merry Christmas his only choice?
It was a natural question but a futile one because she knew she wouldn't have asked it of the fisherman. She shook her head and smiled at the thought of Brian jabbing at the gull far out of the boy's reach.
She prepared her materials. She sat on a stool and studied the blank canvas. The bass entered. Soon the bass was filling the room.
How would this scent look in a picture? She sat there for a while staring at the canvas, enjoying the aroma of the baking fish, thinking of it streaking, snapping the bait, hooked and pulled up into the air, flipping, flashing. She returned to the kitchen, hungry for the bass.
"Ummm! This is good!" Brian said a short time later at dinner. "Just like the fish Dad and I caught." He was on his second helping.
"Yes, it really is." It had been a while since she had finished a first helping of any food. Now she was surprised that she wanted a second helping, but she didn't take it. Leftovers would come in handy tomorrow, especially for Brian's lunch.
That evening after she had put Brian to bed, she fleshed and clothed most of him, then started forming the man.
She dressed the man in lumberjack shirt and jeans. She put the man's left arm around Brian in a gentle hug. That night she slept soundly.
The next day she studied man and boy, both half-born.
She soothed some sky cerulean blue. She sketched a sea and a shore. She plunged into the ocean, rolling green, swaying on yellow, flipping and dipping olive, spilling, dashing white, foamy white rolling to silver, dunning gray, splashing bloody red running ashore, bubbling, oozing, dying away to hazy pink....
Out of the sea she raised rust and turned it into a wooden pier.
"Now you have something to stand on," she said to the man and boy.
She swathed the pier in mist and drifted the mist into the distance where she daubed terra vert. The daub she expanded into a small, shaky church with windows fiery red. She shrouded the church in fog, then returned to the foreground and splashed waves against the pier.
"Got to make the waves wilder."
She soon had the pier looking as if it stood only by the grace of opposing forces reflected in the tide's ebb and flow. She lightened church's fog. At the shore’s edge the church teetered...
Upward from the church she whirled more mist into the sky, then thickened and darkened it into the cassocks of the choir. The choir she clothed in white surplices and gave them the faces of children. She drew a candle beside the choir and further up in the sky she formed a flower. She opened the camellia's petals and sprinkled the stamen with filaments bone white. She brightened the candle, flowered the petals a deep rose, headed the filaments with anthers bursting yellow until the stamen swished sensuously. Now the choir was rising in the rays of the candle toward the camellia bloom. Candle and bloom heightened the glowing faces of the children singing.
Over the pier she painted sun and bird. The sun she made larger than its counterpart in the horizon, the camellia. She reflected the bloom's colors in the sun and streamed in the light of candle and choir, purpling the sky, warming the sun to cast a soft glow on the gull and fishers. The gull she floated wide-winged over man and boy; now it was eyeing and flying toward the viewer—a benediction of stillness in motion.
She put a navy blue ball cap on Brian, headed the cap with a white B. She rumpled the boy's gray sweater, bleached his jeans a bit. She got the man's cap halo-white, shagged his hair, scruffed his beard. She dirtied the man's jeans, tore a hole in one knee, made the cuffs ragged, the sneakers worn.
She tightened the man's hug around Brian. She put the rod in the boy's hand and had him reeling up the fish. She felt the line vibrating and smiled. The man's right arm seemed to reach, grasping the fish. The fish she portrayed in profile, about to be unhooked, form serene, eye a bead of black. She stepped back, studied this scene, shook her head, spoke to the work.
"Man, you're too realistic; fish, you're too calm, unreal. I'm trying to hold you as a kind man and a beautiful fish and Paul and Brian and the sun and the sea and....We change what we hold in grasping it."
She examined each part of the work individually and relative to the other parts, then studied the whole. "Yet we are somehow the same. But I don't feel all of you. I don't always see me in you. I don't always hear us."
She struggled with the man. She couldn't get the fish right either. She worked on the faces of the fishers. Days were passing.
"Darn it, Brian, you're starting to look slap-happy, like a clown."
Back to the man's right arm. She stretched the arm more, culminated it in a hand gnarled, suffering, less grasping now, more nimble, yet with a strong hold on the fish. She enlarged the fish's eye and gave its tail a violent flip. The rest of its body remained calm. Now the fish appeared to be resisting its fate and resigned to it; the fisherman was taking the bass as well as offering it.
She smiled, then frowned. She needed to do more with the fishers. She dreaded doing it. But she worked on them doggedly, blotted out their faces, made no progress. She stopped, studied the whole work, spoke with it.
"I'm trying to hold on to you to let you go. Most of you are going. Let it all go away and come back—all of you, changing, flowing away like the sea, coming back again. Maybe memory is a kind of faith."
Her frustration flared again.
"Here I go again, trying to get what I felt on that pier. We change what we see in looking at it. OK, brush, reach inside their minds. Pull out their thoughts! Stroke thoughts into faces! I want more than words."
More struggling. She stopped, studied. Brian had gone from slap-happy to gaga. The fisherman saw with the blank eyes of a Greek god; he smiled with the bland face of the elevator man.
"Damn it to hell!" She threw down her brush, stomped on it. Fist balled she lunged at the man but caught herself. She blotted out Brian's face. She blanked out the man's face. She stormed out, slamming the door.
When she returned to the studio a week later, she looked at the painting up close and from the back of the room. In the center of the room she surveyed it. She sat on the stool and examined the work; she stood on the stool and inspected it. She sat on the floor, paced around the room, even out in the hall, always studying the work, its every angle and line, every shade and tone. She spent several hours studying it. Then she whispered to the man and boy:
"Do you want to be me? I want to be you. Only choice we got!" She began creating new faces. Deep in the night she stopped, pale, exhausted. "Only choice is no choice. More choices, more no choices."
She scanned the whole work, suddenly feeling inside the painting indistinct from its parts and outside it as viewer speaking/seeing—the feeling flashed away like the wild thing that came and went with the hooked worm, like the rain that fell on Marty's last laugh. Then came flashes of Brian and her digging worms, the man handing the boy live shrimp, Paul hugging Brian as the boy reeled in the big bass. She muted the room light.
She took the painting to the window, set it down, and opened the blinds and the sash. The moon beamed. She inhaled its rays. The buds on the camellia had burst into more blooms, dewy now, some glistening. She reached out and touched a flower. She closed her eyes and caressed a moist, silky petal. She squinted at the bloom she was touching and felt her eye lids slightly quiver. The flower appeared to quaver—a sudden nimbus, pulsating—she opened her eyes wide to the bright night.
She took the painting and held it in the moonlight and closed her eyes. She opened them, returned the work to the easel, switched off the light and left the room.
An earlier version of this story won the Florida First Coast Writers' Festival Short Fiction Contest and was published in the State Street Review, Vol. X, No. 1, 1998 (once a leading literary journal in Florida, the State Street Review had to cease publication because of its sponsor's budgetary constraints).
WAR GAMES AND WANTON BOYS WHO WENT TO CHURCH
It was 1947 and Little League had not yet come to Knoxville. No adults used us as vicarious stars. No coaches defeated us with the winning syndrome. We boys were free to get dirty and disorganized, to wander around the woods and see what we could find. No parents bothered us there unless we missed meals; then they came yelling for us or sent a goody-goody girl who'd threaten us with dire warnings. We had lots of time and space to climb trees and run up and down hills and pick berries and catch crawdads, or loaf away the day by a slow meandering stream.
But nature could get boring. So could mud hockey and rolly bat. Roughhousing was fun but not nearly exciting enough. We hungered for something much more dynamic, something proud and exhilarating, something with awesome power and profound guts. We craved the total risk, the ultimate edge. Only one thing could give us the fantastic thrill of glorious victory: WAR.
We'd choose up sides and start growling at each other. "We're the Americans. You're the Japs!" "Baloney! We're the Americans and you're the Nazis." The jawing usually got heated, never got settled, and each side would go storming off thinking itself the good guys and the other side a bunch of devils.
Our materiel consisted of mud-covered rock grenades, b-b guns, hedge apples, sparklers, bulldog firecrackers, sniper nests in trees and foxholes, camouflaged caves for ambush, ponchos from military surplus stores. Our attack plans included strategies and tactics we thought brilliant, but these usually went awry when the battle began. Our "offensive" degenerated into wild charging and yelling like, "Take that, you dirty kraut!" as we pumped our Red Ryder b-b rifles and hurled hedge-apple grenades with bulldog firecrackers in 'em. I had to beg kids to borrow their rifles for a few shots because my parents wouldn't let me have one till I was 12.
Oh, we got cuts and bumps, but I don't recall anyone getting seriously hurt. We covered ourselves with all kinds of make-shift protection. My Dad's helmet and gas mask gave me excellent head cover. One chubby kid clanked around in ancient armor his grandpaw had given him. We called him "Fat Armor." He trudged so slowly everyone got a pot shot at him. He didn't give a durn. Pellets just pinged off him. We tried to stop him with stones and grenades but they bounced off him too. He just kept on coming like Frankenstein's monster, plodding and clanging and roaring inside that armor with the visor down, his troops crouched behind him in single file, using him for cover as if he were a huge tank. We finally got wise and started pelting their flanks. That didn't stop Fat Armor. He kept on coming, flailing the air with chainmail gauntlets, scattering us all over the place, banging a slow-footed warrior with bruising wrath.
Then one day Fat Armor got his. It zinged through the slit in his visor. He threw off the helmet screaming "Times out! Times out!" Below his right eye the red welt was swelling. "Looks like you been stung by a wasp," one kid said. That's exactly what Fat Armor told his mother he had--a wasp sting--and she kept him in for three days. After that we made a rule you couldn't shoot anybody above the chest or in the "privates." But the rump was fair game. When several boys went home with "bee stings" to the butt, the parents made a rule that we couldn't skinny-dip in the creek anymore. We did anyway.
For body armor I wore part of a canvas tent over an old poncho I got from Army Surplus. These were fine defenses against pellets and firecrackers but made me sweat like a hog. They were very good against stingers when we raided yellow-jacket holes unless one retreated up your pants leg. We took fiendish delight in zapping the jackets. Whenever I hear the line in Shakespeare's Lear, I think of those bee kills: "We are to the gods as flies are to wanton gods; they kill us for their spite."
Yes, we wanton boys killed bees and ants and flies and spiders for the sheer fun of it. We got awfully good at rationalizing this slaughter. Once after blowing up a yellow-jacket hole and torching the survivors, we celebrated by sprawling on the ground and swilling "big oranges" and "moon pies." Our lips and tongues glared fiery orange and we laughed like clowns over our victory, elated that not one of us got stung.
In dead seriousness one kid said, "These attacks are a whole lot of fun because we're doing God and the grown-ups a great big favor. Yellow-belly bees are just like the Japs. They gotta be wiped out so the woods'll be safe to play in. Make America stronger too!" Another boy said, "If your parents give you any guff, tell 'em the Bible says we're supposed to multiply and subdue the earth. We're killin' stinger bees, so we're right on target with the Good Book." One kid didn't know what "subdue" meant. After he found out, he thought the Bible passage was the best possible thing we could use on parents because all of them went to church. Of course, we did too.
An earlier version of this piece was published in Writing Strategies Plus Collaboration. 3rd edition. Pearson Custom Publishing, 2000.
"As I said, I'm obsessed with her. I suppose you have the captain's evaluation," the soldier said.
"I just finished reading it," the major said. The first doctor (a captain) had been relieved of the soldier's case. Intelligence had brought in a second doctor, this major, CO of an interrogation unit in Psychological Warfare.
"Hope they send me home."
"Oh you have so much to gain here. You speak the language fluently. You're single, have a master's degree. There are some friendly foreign nationals out there on the economy. You have plenty of time to see the whole continent. You have educational opportunities galore, on post and off post. Of course, the mission is foremost."
"The background investigation tells the fate of my Aunt Becky, doesn't it?"
"Yes, the BI mentions that."
"Does the BI say that less than two kilometers from here she's plowed under a killing ground?"
"Does it say there's an outrageously benign memorial to this malignant burial heap, huh? And what'll the record say it I last out my tour here? That I met this so-called "foreign national" and we talked for one minute. That she did for me what her country did to my aunt. Only she worked on me much more insidiously and in the end I suffered even more than Becky. Is that what the record will say?"
Moment of silence. The soldier stared out the window across the long field and forest which divided the army post from the site of the memorial. Beyond that, the mountains gently rolled into a hump like the back of a whale. He could make out some farmers in the field and wondered if she was among them. He began to perspire. He wished he were in the cool mountains...in the womb of the whale. He got up and tried to throw open the window.
"I'm afraid it's nailed shut. Wish I could order this old AC to behave." The major chuckled. He looked cool.
"I found her in the cold. I lose her in the heat." The soldier paced back and forth, then sat down and wiped his brow.
"I'm sorry the weather's so unseasonable. Now, let's review the captain's report. You had just arrived from the states. After your initial in-country orientation at Division, you were assigned a one-quarter ton vehicle. You drove that vehicle on Regional Highway I, proceeding due south toward your permanent duty station. You were over four hours in transit. About a kilometer from post you took a back road and became disoriented."
"I got lost in a war wagon. I was glad to be lost."
"Thought about why I volunteered for this place. I had to be very close to that death camp. I would interrogate them. I'd ferret out the closet villains, the common folk who said they didn't know what was in the boxcars, who saw people go up in smoke and did nothing. I wanted to tie them up with their own guilt and choke them with it. I'd brand their children with it and their children's children and their children's children. I'd make them suffer a thousand years of shame. Then suddenly it all seemed so futile. I saw some sign and turned off the main road. Could've been a sign to the base, I don't know. I didn't care. I was drifting...chilled by the cold wind that shrieked through the jeep...jangled by bumping and rattling over roads that bore the bones of countless wars...tortured by the thought that it would come again and I didn't matter. No one really mattered at all. Murder and hate always raged again. Two thousand three hundred years after Plato and his theme was still the same. It would always be the same: Only the dead have seen the last of war."
"As things stand the only road to peace is by full military deterrence. The enemy is cold right now but he can get hot at any time. You understand that, don't you? Do you know how much the Army needs you?"
"Nature needs me more."
"You say you were depressed and didn't care. But you stopped and asked this old peasant for directions to the post. Your action implies a sense of duty. You cared about reporting on time. That's a positive sign."
"No. I stopped because of the Virgin Mary."
"The Virgin Mary?"
"She was praying beside the road...in a small wooden box held up by a rickety post."
"You mean the box virgin. The roadside statue a few of the locals still pray to. Are you Catholic? Your BI shows no religious persuasion."
"I'm agnostic. Went to a Catholic school for a year. I was the only non-Catholic in the eighth grade, but they let me carry a flower and march in the May procession. The boys and girls joined hands and slowly filed across the sports field to the Virgin's shrine. The girls wore white dresses and veils. We boys harmonized in navy-blue ties and pants and white shirts. I was an A student. They gave me the honor of walking with the girl who crowned the Virgin. Of course, they hoped I'd convert."
"I've read about this virgin devotion. Fascinating cult! In your immediate case, how does the box virgin relate to the peasant?"
"Sir, please don't say 'box virgin' and "peasant'!
"As you wish! Well, what's the connection, if any?"
"They give me a profound sense of beauty."
"But you told the captain you hated the old woman. And you seem to link her to all these old atrocities. Please, let's go over it again. How did you meet her? What exactly did you say to each other?"
"The sun was rising when I saw the shrine. The woman was just rising from prayer. Unlike an old woman, she got off her knees easily, gracefully. Have you ever glimpsed an old tree in first light of dawn? That's how she looked at that moment: new and radiant, transfigured. She was walking toward the field when I drove up to the shrine. It was still patched with snow. The Virgin smiled like the Mona Lisa. She stood on a snake which coiled around a globe. Her blue gown had faded. A crack ran down the center of her body. Then I heard the music."
"Oh, Mary, we crown you with blossoms today! Queen of the Angels! Queen of the May!" the soldier sang. "That's the first part of the song we sang in the eighth grade...when we placed our flowers in the shrine."
The major looked deadpan. Such a beautiful tenor, he thought. But his record says nothing about musical training. "Pehaps you thought you were hearing the music but actually you were recalling your school experience. You were singing the song only in memory."
"Now that the woods are full of flowers, major, does it make any difference?"
"Don't be evasive! What about the old woman?"
"She had turned around to watch me. I asked in her language if this was the road to the base. She said I was going right and motioned straight ahead. Is March always this cold around here? I asked. She walked slowly toward me. Sometimes but this year the crops will be very green, she said. The slight tremor and the cadence of her speech gave her voice a strangely lyrical tone. But surely there will be more frost. She nodded at my prediction, slipped off a glove, and gently picked up some dirt. Then she held out the earth to me as a priest offers the host to a communicant. She had bright eyes.
"The harvest will be fine. I can tell by the smell of the soil. It's so rich, so good," she said. I never saw a kinder face."
"But what if we get late snow? I thumbed the black dirt in my gloved hand; it slipped through my fingers."
"She smiled warmly and said, Ah, spring always comes again. Goodbye!"
"As she walked away, what did you think about?"
"Shelley?" The major looked blank.
"If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? Do you know the poem? Did the War College require literature, sir?"
"Keep that up and you'll find that the cost of sarcasm in this man's army is very high! Now tell me, at that point, exactly how did you feel about this old woman?"
"Wonderful! The dirt was good too, and so was the cold. Even the slush was good. I thought of Eliot's prayer: And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well!"
"Exactly when did you start to hate her?"
"When I drove through the main gate of this base."
"Yet according to the report, you often return to the west end of that field. You always sit behind a large fir tree. Some days you spy the woman in the field or at prayer. The last three days you haven't seen her. Did you ever come out from behind the tree and talk to her?"
"Do you intend to talk to her again?"
"I don't know."
"Why do you keep returning to that tree? Why do you sit there for one hour day after day, staring like a voyeur?"
"To learn about resignation."
"You said you love her and you hate her."
"I love here because for one moment in a foreign field she was my earth mother. She gave me the gift of nature. She blessed me with the light of hope and peace. When she prays before that shrine, I almost think the cosmos has reason after all. If there is a creator, perhaps its grandest creation is yet to be: Earth Mother and the Heavenly Mother as one. Ideal Woman!"
"Why do you hate her?"
"Her goodness--real or apparent--lessens the effect of the guilt she must bear. I fear her beauty will seduce me, that I'll gloss over the evil or even worse, forget it. Then I would break my sacred bond of righteous indignation. I would desecrate the memory of my aunt. I would cheat the millions who cry out from the grave, Justice! Give Us Final Justice!
"That will be all for now! I'll see you again on Friday, 1500." After the soldier left, the major began filling out DD Form C-22: Classification: Secret: Subject bipolar w/ avoidance complex and repressed voyeurism. Obsessed with foreign national, female, approx. age 75. Shows love-hate toward her. Love non-copulatory; hate passive-aggressive. Reverse characteristics may be valid. Disorders subverting duty. Mission undermined. Recommended action: (1) cloromazaphine, (2) counter-obsessional imagery and subsequent electrotherapy. Objective: operative stimuli on conscious-noctural-subliminal levels. Prognosis: curative outcome guarded.
The major was a strong proponent of cloromazaphine. The medication would have to requisitioned from Chemical Warfare and the major did not like the hoops one had to jump at Chemical. In any event, prior to administering medication and electrotherapy, regulations required (a) complete verification of the diagnosis by the major's superior officer, (b) submission of full report to Intelligence at Division Headquarters. To assist him, the major chose a specialist fifth class who had been working as a company clerk in Biological Warfare. The specialist's military occupational specialty included surveillance proficiency. Three days later he handed the major this log:
May 15, 1628 hrs--subject leaves duty station. 1650--subject sits on stone, moss-covered; stares at sky, overcast, coordinates 28-X-3. 1655--leaves stone. 1700--arrives tree, fir, large. 1800--leaves tree. 1828--arrives Co. B Enlisted Billets. Temp. range: 81--78 F.
May 16, 1615--subject leaves duty station. 1628--arrives Co. B Supply. 1631--requisitions one (1) can putty, multi-pupose; two (2) sheets sandpaper, light-weight; one (1) can paint, blue #2, GI; one (1) can paint, white #3, GI; two (2) brushes, combat field, USAR, ret. 1641--leaves Co. B Supply. 1700--arrives shrine, box virgin. 1704--commences sanding virgin. 1720--completes sanding virgin. 1723--commences caulking virgin. 1736--completes caulking virgin. 1740 -1759--stares at virgin. 1804--leaves shrine. 1833--arrives Co. B Enlisted Billets. Temp. range: 82 - 77 F.
May 17, 1132--subject leaves duty station. 1200-- arrives shrine. 1203--wipes virgin with rag, OD. 1208--commences painting virgin blue, white; white, blue . 1240--completes painting virgin. 1242-1300 stares at virgin. 1301-- genuflects, leaves shrine. 1329--arrives duty station. 1331-- subject reprimanded by SFC Cloudhurst. 1335--subject cited, issued Article DD 215 by 1Lt Thrallson. Temp. range 88 - 91F
Next morning the major and the specialist sat in a thicket in fog. Through his night vision scope the specialist watched the soldier at the shrine. The soldier stood at rigid attention, hands clasped as if in prayer.
"Is he still mumbling?"
"Any lip traffic ? Lens on focus Ultra?"
"Negative on lips. Affirmative on focus, sir."
"Hail Mary full of Grace, keep my antic disposition on! They're out there somewhere with more 215's. Hail Mary full of grace, keep those gigs coming in! Hail Mary full of Grace, where is the old mother? Hail Mother, full of Earth, blessed is the guilt your faith cannot bear!"
"Lip traffic in-coming, sir!"
"Uh, hail Mary full....antic...215's...grace... gigs coming...old mother....Hard to read, sir!"
"Prayer medium, probable code!"
"Sir, virgin's box. It could be a drop zone for classified data."
"Scan the field for possible enemy contact." The major shifted his buttocks smashing wildflowers.
"Holy Mary, Mother of Fog, don't lift it now! Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our haze. Fog to fade and hide in or fade and find in? Music again! Eighth grade...your hand's warm, bit tremulous, moist...I lay my rose at the Virgin's feet...help you up the first step and watch you slowly ascend...your patent-leather gleaming...smooth curve of your calves, lightly tanned, up the steps...flow of legs and lace...pure...lucid...breeze fondles your veil...loosens strands of your hair...auburn hair casting its sheen in the sun as you gently place the rose crown on her head...Susanah, I loved you then but you didn't know it...Holy Virgin, I loved you then...did you know it? I loved you both then...In that ineluctable moment I loved the universe..."
"Foreign national. Female, old."
"Eighty meters. Toward shrine, due west."
"Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee! Where were you when they turned on the gas? Where were you when they threw them in the ovens? Where were both of you? Hail Mary, full of Grace, blessed art thou among women, blessed is the Fruit of thy womb. I know where you were then: You and your Fruit were right here!"
"Prepare to document!"
"Prepared to document."
"What, no miracles then? No tears of blood streaming down your cheeks? Mother Earth was kneeling here then, wasn't she? She was praying the Angelus in this very spot when Becky came out of the chimney over there, slowly curling up in a ring of pitch black smoke. That was about the time I placed the rose in your shrine, wasn't it? Hail Mary, full of Grace, what is Mercy in the face of monstrous Evil? What is Justice in the aftermath of it? Are they lost souls groping in the gloom of ambiguity? Does Indignation rage and rage until it explodes in raw hate? Is my indignation beating like mad in the heart of the whale I seek to slay? Have I become some wretched parody of Ahab?"
"Female stopping at stone, sir!"
"Sixty meters. Sitting on stone. Looking at sky."
"Roger, wilco." He aimed the infrared camera and captured the old woman. "Picking flowers now, sir."
"Shoot her again. Shoot every move." The major leered.
The soldier turned his gaze from the shrine to the field as the sun shot rays through the gloom. The sun couldn't hold and retreated before a cloud of murky haze. Light and dark struggled to control the land but neither gained it.
The soldier watched her approach in a sun beam, like a figure in a Millet painting. In her old shawl and tattered coat, in her faded skirt and rough boots, she had always been here, he thought. Yes, she would always be here as long as there is soil to till, as long as flowers bloom, as long as folk can think and feel and sow and reap in holy rhythms of earth and sky.
"You know my name?"
"I heard the farmers call you sometimes."
"They said you restored the Virgin. We all thank you for your kindness." Her voice quavered more than before.
"You're welcome, but I'm afraid I'm not always what I seem."
"Is anyone?" Her smile enigmatic, like the faces of the Mona Lisa and the Virgin. She looked older now, bent, a little feeble.
"Where have you been this last week?"
"I've been ill with an old wound that shows no scars. I keep trying to pray it away." Hanging from her belt a string of rosary beads.
She handed him a plant with leaves of white down and blooms surrounded by wooly bracts. "I bring you the mountains. Thank you for caring for Our Lady. Will you pray with me now?"
"I will sing your prayer, but not in your language or mine."
The soldier helped her to her knees. She gazed up at him. The fleeting sun split their faces into light and dark.
"Bless you, my son!" She bowed her head and started praying the rosary.
Then he sang the other song, the one they sang when Susanah crowned the Virgin, the one they kept singing as he helped her down from the shrine, as the boys and girls joined hands again and marched in solemn procession back to the school.
"Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum! Benedicta tu in mulieribus...." Then as now the song resounded across the field and echoed in hills and faded away in whispers.
June 14--Rosmarie died of her war wound.
July 4--The major sent MI Form 218 to Division: Classification: Secret. Subject: Jacobs, Bernard C., PFC. Separation from Service. Reason: Disorders, Mental.
August 15 (ten years later)-- another continent...war-torn hamlet...his unit besieged... the colonel dashing off MI Form 219--Classification: Top Secret. Subject: Jacobs, Bernard C. Nickname: Bernie. Purpose in Country: Aid & Development. Organization: USAD. Casualty Status: Killed in Operational Perimeter. Last words: "Rosmarie," "Susanah." Action: Final substantiation subject killed by hostile fire.
The colonel grabbed the field phone. "Delta Victor, this is Foxtrot Tango. More incoming. MAY DAY! MAY DAY!" he screamed.
The first version of this story appeared in the "Men Portray Women" issue of Kalliope, A Journal of Women's Literature and Art. Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988. This journal is an international publication of long standing and wide readership and should not to be confused with a university undergraduate magazine of the same first name. Kalliope, A Journal of Women's Literature and Art has been affected by the economic recession and is now in hiatus.