A story in three voices
by Geri Lipschultz
Back when the land was country, my husband left me for another woman. We saw but did nothing to stop it. We watched her come, and we watched them go. If there were words, I did not hear them. Nor did we speak, the boy and I. Later I would recall a day striking for its purple light, drawn from the sky like milk. Winds encircled the oaks, enough to offset gravity, but nothing more. Barely a shiver in the jagged leaves. As for the light, it caught her eyes. They were beams in the threads of the water, blinding. I might have followed her myself if I didn't have the boy by my side. At first, she was a distant shadow that gradually began to crystallize into something of substance. I took her to be a shark. For that is the way the mind fools the eyes. A fish is what I supposed he saw, when he walked away from me toward the shoreline. Then she raised her head out of the water and her eyes found him, cast him into their light, more by net than by menacing hook. He was standing at the edge nibbling, and then she reeled him in. Who would believe it? As if paralyzed we stood next to the house, and we both watched him wade into the water and meet up with her, and then we watched him disappear with her.
Like Lyda, she came to me before I saw her. In a dream, a mermaid appeared. "Look for me," she had said. "You will hear my voice before you see my face."
And so I did. We were building castles, Roge and I. "What's that you said," I asked my son. I called him my son, but he was not.
"I said nothing, Papa," he said.
Moments later I looked up, as if stung, and I scanned the water—looking for what? I could not have told you, but then I saw the form. It was like a flame approaching, and I was mesmerized.
"Papa? Where are you going? What are you doing?" I heard these words from the back of my head. I was running away from him, from our small home, from my wife of three years, from my life, perhaps. My running took me deep into the water. I was following the woman. The woman swimming away was the mermaid of my dream.
The numbness in my veins condemned me to silence. I stood outside the house for a long time after that, glancing dumbly at my child who took to skipping in the clearing, singing and dancing, as if for the multitudes. Then he settled down and began to place the mud and rocks into some kind of formation. I returned inside our drab hut and wondered how long it would take for pity to come to my door.
I prepared dinner for the two of us, washed and cut up the berries, my fingers drenched in the purple light. I looked up at the sight of a child's body covered in mud but dared not ask him to bathe in very same water that had swallowed up the one he called father but was not. We fell asleep in each other’s arms, and then the days piled up, and I went on carving out the time with chores, occasionally drifting back to the door or a window to catch sight of the sea. The boy's mirth was inexplicable. I would come to learn that it was a kind of madness, not unlike the man he called Papa. He was the only man the boy knew.
I am not what you call an honorable man. I come from three generations of drifters. Ours is an oral history, the stuff of which nightmares are made. Where lies redemption, I couldn't begin to say. I know no other way of life than that of a child set adrift to fend for himself. No seed of stability ever took root in my soil. I was always grabbing for the glistening fruit, which is a ticking clock. As soon as you snatch it off the tree it begins to rot. This that I offer is a bone. There is no excuse. If I believed in the god of recorded history, I would beg him to change me. If I knew how, I would command that muscle to grow, the one that makes a man cleave to a woman and her children. It is my lack of such a muscle that I believe draws them to me. They come to me like a teacher to an ignorant child, and I cannot resist them. The pull of the longing is the only god I know.
He did not want me to know his name. "Why do we need names," he said. "I am your man. You are my woman. He is our boy."
When I pressed him for the name, he gave it to me, forbidding me to speak the words. I wrote them down. Still, it is not Paul de Vox that comes to my mind when I conjure up his image, his gait, and his voice, but something else. Something like "husband." Something like "man." I grew out of the custom of referring to people by such a thing as a name. It changed me, and first it was subtle, but after the first season I suppose it lost its subtlety.
I, who was once the beautiful Lyda of pride and shame, embraced the anonymity of woman. Being no one and everyone gave me the courage to go where the one called Lyda would not.
Lyda was just a child herself, when we met, as wild and elusive as a feral cat. I'd met no one on earth so beautiful, whose form nature had designed to bring out the cruelty of men and women alike. The baby was born of the same circumstances as my own, with sister and mother one and the same. I knew that one day I would have to come back for the boy, if not his mother. Her pull was that strong, to lift me out of my tradition, at least in my mind.
It wasn't my intention to abandon them.
My "mermaid," like Lyda, had no home. She lived on her wits, at the mercy of those around her, and like me—at her whims. She had come a long way by water. She looked for no attachments. She wanted to return to a place she had known as a child, a place where she would be welcomed. When we were not swimming, we spoke at length about what we'd left behind. For her there were no children. She said I was her only man, but I did not believe her, and there was no evidence that this was so. Our first night we embraced but made no promises. Still I knew I would stay with her for a time. After we had gone well past my village we knew it would be easier to find people who would give us a bed, some food, and some work to pay it off.
It did not take long to see that word of his leaving had got around. People came to get what they could out of me, but I had nothing to offer them. I didn't know the woman, nor why he had gone. Like them, I had my suspicions. I also knew that he'd left me pregnant, and soon they'd know that, too.
Nevertheless, I did not formulate an exit, as they expected me to do. Little did they know, but I had no family. There was nowhere else for me, other than the streets. I would take to them but for the boy and for the life inside me. My friends all but deserted me when I took up with my husband. He sold his car to buy this shack on the beach. That is what I knew. I had come to depend upon his love and lost my sense of the smell of betrayal. Otherwise, I would have avoided him. Nor did I suspect his deceit.
Anything that I have called my own was someone else's before. I have called things mine; I have used that expression. I have no belongings. I have no home, no attachments. I've surrendered my body to the force of desire. I have no claims on anything the eye can see. But there are sounds I have called my own. I will not give them up, the voice of the land, the voice of the unborn, the voice of parallel wonders, the voice of the dead. There are so many. These voices leave their shrouds, their smells, their laughter, their breath. You might hear such a sound, but it's not really for the ear. You see this sound on the plaintive looks visible on another's face, or in the words provided by another's lips. And in anything that masks itself as light. It's only in the world of your own mind that they exist, and once you accept that, all is well. A cry of the red fox is just that. My mind is the keeper of my book, the collected works of Paul de Vox.
I call it his deceit, but it is I who lie. He gave me everything and promised me nothing. Before he arrived, I was as good as dead, so you could say that he saved my life, but he did not see it that way at all.
"I do not have this power that you speak of. It is you who must take responsibility for that which happens to you. I have tried to teach this to the boy, and he is a better learner than you, who have taught me so much."
And what had I taught him, this man who had brought light and water to the dull horror of my sad life. I would have begged for such an answer, but I had no need for begging. As in everything else, he gave me what he had. "Beauty," he said. And then he turned his face into the darkness because he had nothing more to say.
All my life I've lived with the beast of my beauty. Had I not been born with this stain men call beauty, my life would have been my own. I would not have been a slave to those who wanted to possess what the eyes cannot have. All but this man I could not help but call husband. I asked him this question in the middle of our love, with the darkness of mere starlight and only the roar of waves to keep us company. "Tell me what I have taught you about beauty."
"It is the way the molecules bounce off you into eternity."
"Then everything is beauty," I said. "I'm like everything."
"You are like nothing else," he said.
I forced myself to be content with that, because I couldn't bear to give it up, that moment. Our souls were all breath, and our bodies awash with fire.
The next day he was gone.
I have lived under bridges, in libraries and in boats, in bus stations and train stations and in ports that the great winged birds designed by men call home. But it is the abandoned car that became my specialty. I'd collect them, fix them up and sell them. Often they provided the means for significant bartering. I obtained houses and beds and wives, on occasion, in exchange for a running automobile. Still, I've slept alone more than in company. I've awakened stupidly in the darkest of nights with animals as my closest neighbors, and there were many nights that I could not sleep for fear, when I held my breath lest an enemy notice. Those nights were fewer than anyone would guess. In my youth, I would say I was lucky to be alive, but now that I am a man, possessed of a complex and weathered mind, who may therefore take up the reins of this life, I do not complain.
I think the villagers looked upon us as stragglers left by some oddball wave. We kept to ourselves, except in the stormy season, when the winds required us to evacuate, walk up the steps to the hotel that jutted out of the ground like the stump of a giant. When you live apart from people, the atmosphere around you has a life of its own. You not only see or hear the changes. They register in your body, like a smell or a sudden blow. And later you catch wind of the evidence.
And so it was that I knew another man was coming.
What I do know is that I've never walked away clean. It has always been in the middle of things—and for that I know that I've inflicted a pain of the worst kind. I know it dearly. How ironic that the force that beckoned me, the woman I was swimming toward, seemed without requirements. Childless she had roamed. Not wounded like the others.
Or, shall I say, wounded but healed. No scar to be found. Or so I thought. But we talked. More than anything else, we talked, and the discourse had the effect of glue.
I felt the intrusion before I saw any sign. My stomach pulled closer in to the life that had settled itself inside. For a number of days this occurred, and the sensation grew, no matter how many people came with food for us. Their food was good, but their eyes gored us, told us we were not wanted, warned us of trouble should we stay. Their eyes said it was the will of the land. But I knew what the land wanted and what it would cast out. And it was not yet my time. I'd learned that much from my husband. The nights were lengthening when he came, this new man. What brought him, I didn't know. I only knew that he was coming. I didn't know what he had inside him that was pulling him to me. I stood at the door and watched the shadow of the approaching visitor, and I backed off, shivering, when the knocking began. That first night was as though I was drunk. The emotion that had been stored in me erupted in the face of this unknown man. Of course we'd spoken, but our words were few. It happened that the tide turned with him. All the horridness within me subsided, and I was sane again, accepting of my fate again. A kind man he was. He needed a place to stay, and the villagers had directed him here. He would come with me to the hotel built into a rock when the time came, when the winds grew strong, and maybe he would be here to help me rebuild the shack when it was time to return. Or maybe he, like the ones before him, including the man I accepted as my husband, would leave.
They grow men beautiful by the water. He was a fisherman, a loner, with a family from another village. He would not stay long. This is about all he said of himself. I had no expectations. Beside land, my attachments were to children, my trust in the angels who attended me. A stupid woman I had been called all my life. Nobody knew how in love I was, with my own body, with the water, with the air that so sensuously entered my being. For all I cared, the water was polluted, the fish tainted, the air poison. I didn't count days. He stayed for the birth of the girl, and I never doubted that he would leave me with yet another. In the duration, he fished, taught the boy, comforted me. Maybe another would come, I thought, but I will never again take on a husband.
"How many women have you traveled with," she asked me. We had gathered materials for journeying north. The terrain she had come from was mountainous, and we were quite high. We would light upon her village in the morning. Light from our fire and from the sparks above us bled into the darkness.
"Your desire to go home," I said. "It's something deep in your body. What is deep in me—are stars."
"Which you cannot have," she said, touching me. The pleasure was painful, because the parting hovered around us.
"In your hands is what you've got," I said. "While you have it in your hands."
And then for a while there were no words. After a time, when she had gathered herself for deep sleep and dreaming, I stood up, listening to a voice I have heard many times. "Come with me. Do what I have done, and die with me as well. I pulled you into this world, and I will pull you out of it. You will go down fighting, and in the end accept it. You will take in all of me until your whole being pulses with the beauty and the terror."
I wanted to leave, desperately. It was my moment.
I watched him leave, the man who called me mermaid and gave me my sea legs. I let him go, as my life came rushing back at me, like the inner muscle of a wave, the part of the motion they call the undertow, the part that will turn you into a fish, and then stone.
My eyes were on him, but my memory went swimming back in a fury to recapture that time before him, to frame it once again in a sequence, as if it were composable. I remember that it took a long time, miles and miles of it. It had been over a year. I had a year to figure it out, a year since it happened, but I did not yet have the words. Still, I'd thought I was healed of it because no longer was I dreaming about the face, the hands, the shock, again and again, of being punched and raped, then blindfolded and thrown out of a car, left for dead, but I did not die. I just lay there sleeping and crying. And when I could get up and walk, I found water and just lay there in the water. Convulsing at first, letting the blood and the sickness come out. And then I thought to swim. And I kept swimming, grateful they had left me by water. I tried to find my way back home but I was too far away. All I knew was that it was inland. And later I was grateful for the distance, that I did not have to go back just yet. I let the water heal me, and the sunlight, and the air. And then I was a long time by myself. A long time without any words, without any people. It's because I could not bear people. And still I did not die. The dreams of torture ceased. For some reason I did not know. And I was at peace with my life. I was content to swim, to fend for myself, to wait until whatever it was I needed presented itself to me. And I discovered that for true happiness you do not need very much at all.
Then one day there was a person who swam out to me, and naturally, I did not trust him. And he stayed with me, and finally I trusted him.
You tell a man your story. In the retelling, you are reliving. You are sobbing, even punching this innocent man. He allows you this indignity until you yourself stop. Inevitably you fall for him, this man who has given you back the gift of trust. He gives you words where you had none, and they are your words.
And then–he leaves you, and you are alone. And you see for the first time your village bathed in morning light.
Story Copyright © 2010 Geri Lipschultz
First Image © Yaromira, Dreamstime.com
Second Image © Stephen Kirklys, Dreamstime.com
“The story came from a dream wherein I saw a woman swimming in the ocean, and in my dream, a man left his woman (that woman might have been me) to join the swimmer. The terrain described in the story is similar to that of my dream. I was experimenting with voice and with unconventional love, as well as unconventional ways of overcoming trauma. My process amounts to following, as William Stafford writes, ‘what occurs to me’ with a mixture of gratefulness and forgiveness. The story appeared in a much shorter version, entitled ‘Back When the Land Was Country,’ in Dunes Review (2004). Also, in another version but with the same title as it has now, the story was selected as a semi-finalist for the Third Glass Woman Prize in March of 2008. I read yet another version of this story at the AWP in Chicago last year, at an off-site reading. This is the first publication of the completed story.”
Geri Lipschultz has published work in the New York Times, College English, Kalliope, Black Warrior Review, and other magazines, including most recently Kartika Review and Umbrella Journal, both online journals. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. She was awarded a New York state CAPS grant for her fiction. She received her MFA from Iowa, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Ohio University.