from the opening chapter of fanny howe’s indivisible

 


Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible (2000) does things with words and with the good old Aristotelian categories of time and space that you don’t see much of these days. Henny, a filmmaker, is married to McCool, an alcoholic musician. They live in a working-class part of Boston. Without children of their own, Henny raises foster kids and also opens their door to transients for much-needed money. Tragedy and betrayal result, and there’s lots of good stuff about mysticism and philosophy in general and Buddhism, Marxism and Catholicism in particular. Nietzsche and Bambi — who else would you expect? — also figure into the story. On the verge of a religious conversion, Henny locks her husband in the closet…
 

 

 

 

IN THE WHITE WINTER SUN

 

  

1-0

 

I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning. It was not a large modern closet, but a little stuffy one in a century old brick building. Inside that space with him were two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. The lock was strong but the keyhole was the kind you can both peek through and pick. We had already looked simultaneously, our eyes darkening to the point of blindness as they fastened on each other, separated by only two inches of wood. Now I would not want to try peeking again. My eyes meeting his eyes was more disturbing than the naked encounter of our two whole faces in the light of day. It reminded me that no one knew what I had done except for the person I had done it with. And you God.

 

1-1

A gold and oily sun lay on the city three days later. Remember how coldly it shone on the faces of the blind children. They stayed on that stoop where the beam fell the warmest. I wasn’t alone. My religious friend came up behind me and put his arm across my shoulder.

“We have to say goodbye,” he murmured.

I meant to say, “Now?” but said, “No.”

I had seen I’m nobody written on my ceiling only that morning.

 

Brick extended on either side. The river lay at the end. Its opposite bank showed a trail of leafless trees. My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as a rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open. I said I hoped this was true. He was very intelligent and well-read. He had sacrificed intimacy and replaced it with intuition.

 

I wanted badly to believe like him that the air is a conscious spirit. But my paranoia was suffusing the atmosphere, and each passing person wore a steely aura. “Please God don’t let it snow when I have to fly,” he said and slipped away. My womanly body, heavy once productive, and the van for the children, gunning its engine, seemed to be pounded into one object. It was Dublin and it wasn’t. That is, the Irish were all around in shops and restaurants, their voices too soft for the raw American air and a haunt to me. “Come on. Let’s walk and say goodbye,” he insisted. We walked towards St. John the Evangelist.

 

“I’ve got to make a confession,” I told him. “Can’t I just make it to you? I mean, you’re almost a monk, for God’s sake.”

“No,” said Tom. “The priest will hear you. Go on.”

Obediently I went inside. The old priest was not a Catholic. He was as white as a lightbulb and as smooth. His fingers tapered to pointed tips as if he wore a lizard’s lacy gloves. It was cold inside his room. Outside – the river brown and slow. A draft came under the door.

I think he knew that a dread of Catholicism was one reason I was there. He kept muttering about Rome, and how it wouldn’t tolerate what he would, as an Anglican.

 

Personally I think pride is a sin. But I said “a failure of charity” was my reason for being there. This was not an honest confession, but close enough. The priest told me to pray for people who bothered me, using their given name when I did. He said a name was assigned to a person before birth, and therefore the human name was sacred. Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree and wrapped in cloth.

Outside Tom was waiting and we walked over the snow. “I missed that flute of flame that burns between Arjuna and Krishna — the golden faces of Buddha, and Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, and the dark eyes of Edith Stein and Saint Teresa. Are all Americans Protestant? The church was cold, austere. I’m a bad Catholic.”

He nodded vaguely and said: “But you’re a good atheist. Catholicism has an enflamed vocabulary, don’t worry. You can transform each day into a sacrament by taking the eucharist. You just don’t want to bother.”

 

Even the will to raise and move a collection of bones can seem heroic. Only an object on one side — or a person — can draw it forwards — or on another side an imagined object or person. Maybe the will responds to nearby objects and thoughts the way a clam opens when it’s tapped. “Mechanistic…. We really should put more trust in the plain surface of our actions,” I said.

“Do we really have to say goodbye? And leave each other in such a state?”

“We do.”

“But first, Tom — I have one favor to ask you.”

 

1-2

Exactly ten years before, during a premature blizzard, I left all my children at home and went to meet my best friends in the Hotel Commander. I did so carrying the weight of my husband like a tree on my back. This was a meeting I couldn’t miss, no matter how low I stooped.

The walk from the subway to the hotel was bitter, wet and shiny. Traffic lights moved slowly on my right, while the brick walls and cold gray trees sopped up the gathering snow. I kept my eyes fixed on the left where dark areas behind shrubs and gates could conceal a man, and stepped up my pace.

Lewis and Libby were already seated in a booth in a downstairs lounge. I shook off my coat and sat beside Libby and we all ordered stiff drinks, recalling drunker meetings from earlier youth. I leaned back and kept my eyes on the door, in case my husband appeared and caught me offguard.

“Relax, Henny,” Lewis reproved me.

“I’ve never met him,” Libby cried. “It’s unbelievable.”

“He’s unbelievable,” said Lewis.

“He can’t be that bad.”

“He is. He should be eliminated. He won’t let her out of the house, without her lying. She probably said she had a neighborhood meeting tonight. Right?”

“Henny’s not a coward.”

“She likes to keep the peace though. That’s not good.”

“I’m going to be back in the spring. I’ll meet him then,”

Libby said. “And if he’s all that bad, I will do something to him.”

“Henny has an mercenary army of children around her, protecting her against him,” Lewis explained. “They aren’t even her own.”

“Hen, tell me the truth. Do you wish he would die? I’ll make him leave you if you want me to,” said Libby.

A renunciatory rush went down my spine when I saw, out in the lobby, the back of a man in a pea-jacket and woollen cap. Gathered over, I left the table for the rest room, and Libby followed breathless. She was wringing her hands, smelling of musk rose, and dancing on her pin-thin legs in high heel boots that had rings of wet fur around the tops while I sat in the sink. “Was it him? Was it him?”

We never found out.


That was the same night we climbed out the hotel kitchen window and walked up a slippery hill, one on each side of Lewis, hugging to his arms, while the snow whipped against our cheeks and lips, and we talked about group suicide.

“Phenobarbital, vodka and applesauce, I think.”

“No, Kool-aid, anything sweet.”

“For some reason.”

“Jam a little smear of strawberry on the tongue.”

“Or honey.”

“Catbirds and the smell of jasmine and we all lie in a line under the stars.”

“With great dignity.”

“Despite the shitting.”

“And die.”

“Die out.”

“I can dig it,” said Lewis. “I can dig it.”

“But we have to do it all together,” Libby said.

 

1-3

There is a kind of story, God, that glides along under everything else that is happening, and this kind of story only jumps out into the light like a silver fish when it wants to see where it lives in relation to everything else.

 

Snow is a pattern in this story. It was snowing the day of my first visit to the Federal Penitentiary. The ground was strung with pearly bulbs of ice. I had visited many social service offices in my day, but never a prison. I associated prison with sequence and looked around for a way to break out. As a first-time visitor, and in the early moments, I remembered nervously standing with a crowd of strangers waiting for someone familiar to emerge from behind a green door with a big light over it. For each one of us, the familiar person would be a different person, but our experience would be the same. I already know that some conflicts in life have no resolution and have to be treated in a different way from common problems.

 

But prison seemed to relate to issues of privacy in ways that were unimaginable to those who had never been forcibly hidden. Simplistically I was scared of being in a jail because it was a space that was unsafe from itself, the way a mind is. But I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded the most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me. Maybe the sacred grove of our time is either the prison or the grave site of a massacre. I have always believed I must visit those sacred groves, and not the woodlands, if I want to know the truth. In this case, I only wanted to see someone I loved and to comfort her by my coming. And surely enough, I did undergo a kind of conversion through my encounters with the persons there. When you visit someone in prison, this paranoid question comes up: Do I exist only in fear? The spirit hates cowards.

It broods heavily in the presence of fear. I only felt as safe as a baby when I was holding a baby or a child and so, sitting empty-armed, in a roomful of strangers, watching the light over the heavy door, was a test of will.

Then I saw a child — a little boy in the room with me — he was like a leaf blowing across an indoor floor. And while waiting for my friend to comeout the door, I moved near him.

I asked him what book he had brought with him. He kept his face down and said, “Gnomes.”

“Do you read it yourself, honey?”

“No, I can’t. Tom reads it to me.”

“Do you want me to read some?”

“Sure,” he said and lifted his smile. His eyelids were brown and deeply circled and closed, as long as the eyelids of the dead whose lashes are strangely punctuated by shadows longer than when they were alive and batting. He wore a limpid smile that inscribed a pretty dimple in his right cheek.

“I’m getting obsessed,” he said, “with books about gnomes, goblins, elves, hobbits.”

“How do you mean obsessed?”

“I want to know everything about them. And sometimes I’m sure they really exist and run around my feet.”

“How can you tell?”

“My shoelaces come untied sometimes, and I think I feel them on my shoes.”

“I don’t know, honey. I’ve never seen one. Let’s go read about gnomes.”

When I took his hot little hand in mine, I felt the material charge of will and spirit return to me. I had an instinctual feeling that the room held me fast by my fate. To be here was to be physically “inside” but the way a ghost is inside the world when it returns to haunt someone and still can depart at will. The ghost is confused, paralyzed by its guilt at being present without paying the price for it. Punishment is easily confused with safety.  

1-4

There are sequences of sounds that musicians arrange by twelves, repeating the same twelve notes but in alternating and random sequences. They themselves don’t know which three or four notes will come out close, in relation to each other.

It is sort of as if someone I loved indicated that he loved me too, but in unexpected moments and ways. And the three words “I love you” only popped into place once, by mistake, and after he had died, as in “too late”. There were no witnesses to our relationship, and this created a credibility gap. I didn’t trust that the experience that he and

I had had had actually taken place because there were no witnesses; the verb tense was queer. No conventions stuck.

I was the missing person at the graveside ceremony – an eyeball behind a bush. The person I loved would say “me… too… you,” and this would be months after he died. Would anyone believe that I just heard him say it, no?

 

1-5

It was in that prison that I met a religious man for the second time in my life. Almost every time I visited there the small boy was there too with his beautiful ringed eyes, serious long face, and this man beside him. The child often wore a strange sidelong smile, the way the blind do. I could tell that his guardian was weirdly unlike a blood father. He always brought along a book that the boy ran his hand over. This man was either distracted or brooding when he talked to the boy’s mother, a prisoner who was tiny and wildhaired and dressed in a green uniform which was fitted to say “not my own.”

They talked about the boy, eyeing him simultaneously. The mother’s expression was sad and inverted. Her eyes pulled their surroundings inside, and then didn’t let them out again. This was a common expression on many prisoners’ faces here. Many of the women were locked up for drug crimes. Either they were users or else they lived with a dealer and took the rap for him. I found out all about this in upcoming visits. My friend, who had been framed, told me the stories of the prisoners around us. Often the guy was free while his girlfriend and/or mother of his child was locked up for her unwillingness to speak his name to the Feds. Already I knew from experience how quickly a woman’s children could end up in foster care if there was no functioning family person. I assumed that this was the case with those three. The man might be a foster father, or a friend. Or was he her boyfriend? I was pretty sure maybe the woman was one of those people who were political prisoners left over from the sixties and seventies. In any case, I concluded there should be a whole separate set of laws for women and watched the boy back onto his mother’s lap. Her name was Gemma. One day before jail the man told me about Gemma the prisoner and how he knew her. We stood in puddles that looked like mirrors of shadows around our feet.

“I used to work for a small legal aid firm inBoston,” he told me. “I hated law already by then. But a friend called me asking me to defend this woman. She had been part of a bank heist with the Weather Underground. I told him I’d never been in court before, but he persuaded me, and I did it. And failed. Lost. She got forty years. Life, basically.”

“And her child?” I asked him. “She was pregnant with him when she went in. It was before they had any maternity programs in prison. She and the kid never really bonded. I have watched out for him ever since. You know. Made sure he had a home.”

 “What about the father?” was the natural question I asked.

“Never mind, nothing. He couldn’t.”

“Why? Was he in hiding too?”

“Right, but they are friends. Sort of.”

I pressed him: “Why is the child blind? How?”

“She tried to kill herself. With some poison.”

“After the trial?”

“During.”

We walked from the parking lot towards the prison. I then had a vision of this man having huge lies inside of him, lies like helium that swelled up his spirit until it almost exploded.

I was sure now that he was the father. “What’s your name?” I asked with a squint as if I had only forgotten it.

“Tom,” he said pleasantly. “I’m in preparation for entering a monastery. What’s yours?”

The sun seemed to be setting at two p.m. It shriveled and paled like a coin dropped intostill yellow milk. Inside the checking area I handed over my wallet and keys and found my tongue loosened. I am known for my silence, and liked for it, but with Tom I could talk. “I’m used to seeing the children, not the mothers, when they are lost, separated,” I told him. “I see the beginnings of their lives, not the conclusions, as in this case.”

“What do you mean?”

 “I’m a foster mother — or was — I took children home.”

“That’s interesting.Want to go for a walk later?”

Outside again, Tom and I went for our first walk. It was early spring when the forsythia branches were yellowing up for the arrival of their flowers. The reservoir was scalloped behind a chain-link fence. The air was between black and oyster. He told me he was going back to Canada ultimately. He was going to live as a monastic in a Benedictine community. “Why wait?” I asked.

“To get the boy settled. I can’t leave until he has a home.”

“That could take awhile, because of his age, and affliction.”

“Maybe, maybe not…. but I would love to be somewhere warmer than this.”

“Me too.” There was a tolerant if melancholy quality to him that eased me. My breathing slowed, I believed I could express myself well in words, and nothing bad would happen. He seemed desireless, without being cold and ironic. I already dreaded saying goodbye although that word was planted and fated, because of his stated plans. On many of our walks, no words in fact passed between us. As soon as I had no fear of speaking to him, I had nothing much to say. It was in this silence that we grew familiar enough to travel side by side.

  

1-6

 

In a matter of weeks we agreed to go to the border of Mexico. The boy stayed behind with his foster family. It was late April, 1997. We went there because this border represented the most repulsive cut on the continent. A festering trench. By mutualagreement we decided to plant ourselves in that alien landscape; to carry a mystifying revulsion to its limits. This was a test of faith for both of us.

He was still uncertain about entering a religious community. In retrospect I see that he had several months of exclaustrated wandering ahead of him. He wanted to know how much isolation he could stand. I wanted to learn about pressure without interference. He wanted to persuade me to become the caretaker of the blind child; I wanted to show him how much my freedom meant to me. So we had paused, together, there in an abandoned household on a canyon where it only rained after Christmas. Sand, dust, small stones, loose canyons emitting the gas of past massacres. The huts were wooden, open to spiders, snakes, lizards, birds and illegal aliens who fled like deer at our approach. Now when a fog dulled the difference between mother earth and air, we both remembered snow, our natural northern habitat. Tom said that Southern California was like a body without a head. “One of those bodies they plan to grow for body parts, to harvest, so to speak.” Not far from our desert retreat lay miles and miles of condominium settlements splashed with blue pools. I was sewing curtains. The windowpanes held thick wadded spider webs and the bodies of flies and bees dried in them as if the webs were silver hammocks. At home I heard it was snowing again — large wet cloud-shavings.

 

1-7

Home for me then was on the edge of Boston in a town abutting Roxbury and Franklin Park. The pit and the puddingstone. Old Victorian mansions were shaded by spectacular trees which were pollinated by Olmsted’s landscaping ventures around town. The streets had a secretive drift. Cardinals, bluejays, sparrows, swallows, crickets, robins and crows shivered the leaves with their singing. Almost every person was poor or about to be. You had to leave if you were getting money, because the neighborhood could not tolerate inequalities.

Old families, all of them Irish, Puerto Rican or Black clung to their two-and-three families while the newly arrived (soon to leave) dwelled in single family houses they renovated and converted into apartments before departure. My old house had not been renovated, but needed a new roof and a coat of paint, not much to make its butter yellow facade look permanent where it hid its flaws behind a mound of granite and five varieties of evergreen. It was occupied as usual by transients who sent me the rent for their rooms. McCool my husband was not allowed, by the courts, to pass the gate and enter, but when I was away the tenants called him anyway if a rat was swimming in the toilet bowl or a bat was sleeping in the shower. He would then enter our house proudly with his toolbox, look slowly around the premises he once occupied, deal with the problem and then postpone leaving over a cup of tea and chit-chat.

McCool said his dark hair and complexion were a result of the wreck of the Spanish Armada on the west coast of Ireland. The word “wreck” clung to his features then, like weeds on stones. McCool was not his given name, but his singing name. He played Celtic tunes with a small band who toured during March, and he played solo in Boston pubs the rest of the time. McCool and I had some qualities in common.We were both what they call the working poor.

We were unrewarded artists — he on his fiddle played since boyhood, and me in my films which were obscure meditations on seven themes:

1. geographic cures as religious acts

2. parental betrayals and lies

3. the nearly unsupportable weight of the world’s beauty (God)

4. how to stay uncorrupted

5. a political act as a gesture of existential discomfort

6. childhood for children

7. race in America

These themes found their forms in my dreams and I committed them first to paper in the dark morning hours where eastern clouds were inscribed on our greasy kitchen windows. I wanted to find the unifying idea behind these themes, one sequence of lights that would illuminate the situation. Meanwhile McCool’s music was never recorded but he moved from one shabby venue to the next, playing melodies that were both traditional and new ones he had composed. He was too early and too late for the Irish music scene. He was good at it, but got lost carrying it somewhere. He told stories. He lied. He had no conscience but compensated for this lack with a dogged survivalist creed. He would stay around, no matter what, and be difficult for everyone. To be a problem, he said, was the credo of his revolution.

He needed someone to copy, rather than someone to love, and he was as faithful as a wolf in his way, never ceasing to pursue his family or stay near, no matter what the law said. Everyone knows someone like him.

A total of twelve children passed through our house. Nine of them were temporary; two returned twice, then left again; three were siblings; two were sexually abused, four were beaten; three had ammunition and drugs in their homes; one was abandoned on a church step; two had been left to stepfathers who didn’t want them; one was autistic.

Three children arrived as toddlers and stayed for life. These were the twins, and little Dorothy who helped me. She was motherly but became a nun in Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship after doing foreign missionary work. The twins also traveled far, separately. Then they returned and settled near their childhood home, my house. They both have done well in the world. I didn’t adopt any of them and they could call me whatever they wanted. I didn’t want to pretend they were my natural-born children but to use the slave model — a situation where abandoned children were simply taken in. They called their caretakers Aunt or Cousin. This way no one tampered with the actual source of their existence, or set up a potentially disappointing arrangement. Strangely my three did call me Ma, Mummy and Mom, though they referred to me as Henny. They always called McCool McCool because it was cool. These three became used to an adult man being an outsider. They were street-wise kids who went through the national busing crisis siding with the black students and staying involved with race from kindergarten on.

Later I guess they chose to be permanently engaged with that most absurd social issue because its very absurdity liberated them from all other delusions. These children were my soldiers. They liked to have fun. They grew up in that old house, watching other babies come and go, and left when they were eighteen. They themselves arrived as inert beings, barely able to whine or lift their heads, so neglected they made solitude into a luxury. Contact gradually restored them.

But when their training was over, and they left home, I could barely remember a single act of parenting. Instead I manned the everyday hassles without the bending over, but weeping out of the same personal problem. It was in my misty maternalist past that the life of the spirit developed into its present form. Material flotilla floated away, even the thoughts I had about children, and became transparencies. The passages, acts, encounters, always in  transit and irritating made me move as a mother crab back and forth, sideways through the rooms, tipping and lifting the faces of whole tiny faces up to mine. And these faces changed continually becoming new faces and all of them were attached to the hands they would identify as their own for life. Home tried to stay stationary, to keep them tied, returning to their rooms and views of the moon, but once they were gone, they were really gone, and I was just a mourner at a vast immaterial site.

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