Sunday, August 14, 2011


Early October and the leaves were already long-gone to orange and gold, already falling from the old oaks and maples, the air chilly, mornings damp with low-lying fog and mist. I'd soon be needing more than a wool sweater for morning walks. The long field I had to cross to enter the woods was nothing by then but rough stubble and thorns, brown, a no-man's land, and I'd taken to wearing boots in the last few weeks so my walk to the woods and back would be less miserable, so I wouldn't have to spend half an hour after I got home again picking prickly stubble from my socks.

A thick mist lingered wetly at the wood's edge that October morning when I'd headed for the solitude of the woods, my heavy wool sweater growing heavier, and clammy from the damp air. Once I'd entered the trees though, the discomfort of the crossing lifted. The deep woods always smelled faintly sweet, like bark and dirt and rot. Like things falling back to their most basic elements.

Without thinking, I'd entered the tree-line that morning by the old post that marked where the property ended, and had turned immediately to the left, picking my way through thick underbrush and fallen limbs to a clearing where I knew a wide stump squatted beside a creek-bed. Cold water trickled in it and made its crooked way around large rocks and fallen tree limbs. It didn't matter to me where it had come from, that icy water, or where it was heading. I wanted to sit a while at its muddy edge and watch, mindlessly, as it made its way from here to there.

In those first long months after my husband had packed his things and moved out – moved on – it had seemed easier to be alone deep in the woods than to be among others; easier to be solitary and silent than to be among sympathetic friends who didn't know how to help me or what to say to pull me past the ache of failure and sorrow that seemed never to lift. In that wood, I could be out of sight of curious neighbors. Away from well-meaning friends who were trying to set me up on blind dates with their bachelor cousins or uncles or brothers or widowed fathers. Away from my stunned, confused children for whom I had no way of explaining where their father had gone or the terrible turn our lives had taken.

One morning, a dog – a hay-colored retriever – had come to drink from the slow-running creek while I sat on the old stump thinking – or trying not to think. He'd dropped his yellow head and had lapped loudly, greedily, with his long pink tongue. Though I sat still, though I hadn't moved or shifted or even exhaled, he suddenly raised his head, ears lifted, and looked at me. Maybe that was how long it had taken for my scent to reach him – that fragrance of damp wool and shampoo. Or maybe he'd been startled by the sharp tang of late apples and cinnamon that still lingered on my hands and fingers from the morning's apple-peeling and canning.

Whatever had alerted him, I'd had enough time in those few seconds to see clearly the drops of water that hung, suspended, in the fine hairs of his muzzle. I was stunned, as if it were the first time I'd seen such a small detail so clearly. And then he turned and trotted off again in the direction from which he'd come.

There had been rumors in town of a feral dog pack roaming the fields and woods, but the animal I saw that morning hadn't been thin or ragged and he'd been alone, not in a pack. He had been one of only three animals I'd ever encountered in those morning woods. Once, there'd been a raccoon who'd stood up on hind legs and chittered madly at me and swayed menacingly then, seeing I wasn't to be frightened away by his fussing, he had dropped to all fours and waddled off again. Another morning, a small white opossum ambled into the clearing; it so much resembled a large rat I'd gasped and stood up, stumbling backwards in fright. The opossum hadn't seemed to give me much thought as it nosed around in the leaves and twigs. Backing up and moving forward. Backwards and forwards, over and over, his pink snout to the ground. He looked comical, like a wind-up toy, not a real animal. Then he, too had snuffled his way into the underbrush again and was gone. He'd seemed impossibly white and out of place in that dark, mossy, lichen-riddled place: a little pink-eyed ghost, popping in to root among the fallen leaves for grubs and bugs.

I knew there were also deer nearby but I'd never seen them. A tree grew crookedly at the edge of the property – a gnarled tree, split and charry still from an old lightning-strike – and sometimes, after strong winds or a thunderstorm storm had shaken the tree, small hard apples would lie in heaps beneath those twisted boughs. I always left apples from that tree to rot because they'd have made a poor applesauce or cobbler, hard and sour as they were. Not a one would have been sweet enough to eat. The deer though, in their hunger, had arrived soundlessly in the twilight – one, two, sometimes many at a time – to gorge themselves on the windfall apples. I knew because I'd seen the tamped-down grasses where they'd stood eating and the white fleshy apple cores they'd dropped. I'd seen the hoof-prints they'd left behind when they walked again across the clearing and vanished.

But the animal that followed me as I made my way homeward, out of the woods that October morning, was noisy and crashing, staggering forward like a wild, drunken thing, out of the tree-line and into the open field behind me. I heard it, then turned and saw it for what it was: a gray-brown deer, swaying, looking back at me. I don't know how long it took before it registered on me that the deer was a doe, or that she stood there with an arrow through her throat, pink foam frothing around the bright silver shaft. By the time I saw her clear, she charged away again along the tree-line, leaping with a speed that belied a wound so devastating. I stood there, unmoving, blinking hard, not quite believing I'd seen what I had seen.

She must have been moving, by then, out of adrenalin and sheer terror.

* * * * *

A hart, my grandmother had called that large-antlered stag we'd come upon suddenly in a narrow clearing in the forest where we'd taken a shortcut on our walk to the store. When the stag had turned solemnly and walked back into the trees, she'd told me the story of Cernunnos, an Irish legend, a tale in which a lone stag would appear and disappear again at the edge of a haunted wood. A mythic creature, a being "outside of time." A hart who shifted its shape from an antlered man to a stag. An ageless creature who moved with ease between the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Living. When he appeared, it was a message. A sign.

Of what, I'd asked her excitably then, a sign of what?

But she had grown quiet and strange by then, saying only that the one for whom the sign was intended would know what it meant. She had always been given to odd beliefs, my grandmother, a woman with a penchant for seeing signs and portents in every simple thing: tangled twine on a pathway meant a traveler would become lost; two sticks laid across each other at a crossroads meant that there would be quarrels among friends and an unmendable rift; birds flying, break-neck, into windows were a sign that some devastation was coming. I'd learned to take most of what my grandmother told me as a kind of pleasant fiction, a story-teller's way of explaining the inexplicable. Of giving small things significance. Something by which to amuse an easily-amused granddaughter.

* * * * *

And yet, years later, that October morning, a deer had appeared out of nowhere, had stepped out of the mist, and had stood in front of me. She'd seemed, in that moment, a doppelganger, a mirror-image. For long seconds we stood like that, a plain little doe with a steely arrow lodged in her throat facing a woman gone almost mute.

No one had seemed able tell me why my voice was failing, not the white-coated doctors in the halls of medicine, not the specialists they'd sent me to, not the old women among whom I lived who'd offered me their best broths, brought me herbs and homemade poultices to soothe the raw, wrecked throat and the ruined vocal cords.

Back then, I wouldn't have been able to tell anyone of that morning in the field, much less say what I'd felt when the doe passed into view, halted before me, the arrow protruding from her throat, then leapt furiously away again. I remember putting my hand to my throat. I remember the thunder of her arrival and the thunder of her departure. I remember seeing her gray flanks disappear as she reentered heavy mists far down the field in which I stood. I remember also the rise of hot anger in me when the huntsman with his heavy bow had stepped from the woods, following her trail: a man hunting out of season, a man who'd shot a doe – a female – which was forbidden around those parts, even during hunting season.

Only a coward would shoot a doe; a doe might well have had a young fawn or two tucked into a bed of leaves somewhere in the forest.

He looked up and, seeing me there, briefly lowered his bow. But when I said not a word, when I stood there, flushing bright with anger, one hand at my throat, he looked again at the ground and found something that seemed more interesting than the silent woman who stood in a cleared field before him – perhaps crushed stubble where the doe had thrashed her way into the field, or a blood trail, or the distinctive curve of hooves in the soft ground – and he set out again, in the direction where she had bounded away.

How far could a thing, thus stricken, run?

* * * * *

In my dreams of the hart, she turns back into the forest and makes her way, staggering, to some safe place, to the mud bank of that stream where, finally, her forelegs give way and she kneels on the leafy ground, a supplicant, a penitent at the water's edge. The hind legs tremble and give way too until the soft white underbelly lies full-length along the muddy, leaf-strewn ground. The silky head sinks to the marsh, the wild light of terror or of pain flickering and going out, the jaw going slack, the soft ears no longer flicking.

In the dream, no other animals, large or small, devour her; neither does she fall to rot and stench, the soft hide stiffening. In the dream, the huntsman does not find her or take her body. As I drift some nights now toward sleep, she also sleeps and, in time, the arrow snaps and falls through and the wound in her throat closes and she quickens and wrenches herself upright and stumbles on unsteady legs, regaining her footing. She lifts her head and steps silently back through the dense forest and vanishes.

In the dream, I am standing again in that stubbled field when she steps forward, out of a wet morning fog, when she approaches me again, so close this time that I can see the white throat and the tender place where the arrow pierced her, the slight scar of it that remains, so close I can put out my hand and almost touch her. In the dream, I always understand, I always know what she means; the sign of her comes clear. When I wake again, I don't remember what it is that I knew in the dream. When I waken, she is always vanishing again, moving back through the mists, back through the field of time, a phantom, a lost sign, a deep and unfathomable silence.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011


My husband does not "fart." He out-gases. That is his word, as in, "I left the plane quickly because I feared what might be happening to that cat stowed underneath my seat after five hours of my out-gassing."

Out-gassing may very well be a polite euphemism, as I believed in the early years of our marriage, but I have come to see the particular accuracy of his term. There is a seismic quality to his flatulence, a loud dark force pushed up from a stewy place, carrying with it the pruney sulfurs of the lower intestine, a foul attar which emanates, then slowly seeps outward into the far four corners of whatever room he's in: an ill wind traveling north/south/east/west.

Sometimes shopping in the grocery store, making our slow way through the bright-lit aisles of pickled asparagus and garlic-stuffed olives, past the sanitary napkins and adult diapers, or in the crowded corridors where last winter's coats sag, half- priced, clearanced, on their cheerless plastic hangers, he'll lean in to me and mutter with an embarrassed urgency, "You should move. Right away." I give him my most stern look of disgust and roll my eyes, and then I quickly push the carriage on its stubborn rubber casters into another aisle where he will join me in a few minutes, looking sheepish and relieved. Relieved, that is, until we hear, one aisle over, a woman's anguished voice.

"Ack! God in heaven! What IS that smell?" and after the briefest pause, her snarl of "Henry, did you fart?" The way she says that word, in a voice half-hiss and half revulsion, makes my husband suddenly pink up, like an embarrassed schoolboy. It makes me laugh. I have to cover my mouth with both hands, sputtering and choking back laughter, trying to shove it down until we are least out of hearing-range of that highly-offended woman and poor falsely-accused Henry.

There is no way to say that word, to inflect it or solemnize it, so it isn't funny.

* * * * *

It takes certain fortitude for a woman to live with a man. A gassy man. A man with neither a sensitive nose nor a sense of timing. Southern women, out of a great and deep, long-suffering love, learn to endure, to persevere. We have been trained for this by brothers and fathers who seem also to have been born with these devastating defects of the digestive system. As we grow into young womanhood, we discover to our horror that the polite, comely young men whom we dated, were engaged to, and married, are suddenly little more than fierce bags of gas, men who spend many daylight hours burping into their fists or inventing contests among themselves where they suck in great gulps of air or take in tankards of yeasty beer and then compete to see who can burp out the alphabet. The man who gets farther down the alphabet wins and the victor then thrusts his arms up and runs in tight circles in the yard and is proclaimed, by his fellow apes, Champion of the Universe or The King of Swill.

They'll do this, evening after evening, holiday after holiday, until finally someone unseats the reigning champion. This is what evolution has led us to.

By night, these charmers snore and wheeze and grind their teeth. They snort and mumble in their sleep and their stomachs grumble like great bears at the end of a long hibernation. All these, however, are merely practice, a warm-up for the real show: the night farts. These can be loud or silent. They can lurk a long time under your 600-count Egyptian cotton sheets or the quilt passed down to you by your grandmother. But no matter the quality of the covering, sooner or later the odor seeps outwards from some exit hump and takes over the territory you believed, naively, was yours. By sunup, a wise woman will have learned to make her escape from the bedroom before his faithful, early-morning's long, low rumble of intestinal thunder banishes the scent of last evening's vanilla-scented candles into some outer early morning darkness elsewhere in the house. The husband, however, will go on, snoozing right on through it, this foul alarm, oblivious to the toxic fog that hangs now, like a pall, over the marriage bed.

* * * * *

I cannot attest to the training of girls who have been reared in the North, but Southern girls are taught, in early childhood, that they must master all body noises. Burps and farts are top of the list. There are strategies for this, from what NOT to include in your diet to how to not allow any passage from the body into the outer world. Stomach cramps are a minor by-product of such training. Strategies. Accommodations. This is a girl's training. This is her life, this mindfulness, this self-control.

Sneezes are a close third, especially the explosive ones, and a girl will practice many years to master the fine art of the delicate, high-pitched a-chew and its purposeful placement into a tissue or handkerchief. Snot, at all costs, must be kept inside the nostrils. Daubing at the nose after sneezing is an effective strategy which will prevent great wads of snot from fouling Grandmother's lace-edged linen handkerchiefs, those practical fabric inheritances which can be laundered and handed down for many generations yet to come in a family for which silver service is not an option.

Waste not; want not.

The sinus-demolishing silent sneeze is altogether another art and few of us ever master it, despite our best attempts. The sheer force of it almost pushes the eyeballs from their orbital sockets. Even more difficult to carry off with a full bladder. Something somewhere has to give, after all.

* * * * *

Somewhere along the way, in the socialization instruction, ten-year-old girls are taught to use the proper terminology for seismic body events instead of the "boy-words" commonly used by our brothers and close male cousins. Burping and farting give way, respectively, to belching and flatulence. In an odd turn of manners, sneezing remains the same, but one learns rather quickly to never, ever use the word snot. The proper term is mucus or sinus drainage. And boogers are what your grandfather extracts from his great hairy nostrils and not to be mentioned at all.

I do not believe belching sounds any more respectable than burping, and flatulence just sounds absurd. It is impossible to say, over tea with friends at the Garden Club, "I am a bit flatulent today," and be taken for anything but a yokel or imbecile.

Among the proper terms for body parts themselves are bosoms not titties or tatas, and penis instead of wiener or wee-wee. Likewise, vagina is the appropriate anatomical term, not hoo-hoo, though I cannot, to this day, imagine any circumstance under which the word vagina should be used publicly. Imagine a woman's horror – her feet mid-air, heels propped awkwardly in the cold steel stirrups, toes-up, her body barely covered by a scant paper sheet – should her gynecologist suddenly up and announce as he squeezes the cold, gooey lubricant onto two gloved forefingers, "I am now going to examine your vagina."

And never should there be an occasion in which the word, vagina, would come up in the confessional between you and your priest, as in "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned with my vagina." It is even less likely that your husband will find an occasion in which it will be necessary to mention the word by name when he is in the throes of passion or in any way otherwise engaged in the vicinity.

* * * * *

In 1963, as most of my friends and I were entering fifth grade and some of us were deemed to be already approaching the years of menstruation and fertility, the Jacksonville Board of Education mandated that "Sex Education" would now be a formal part of our schooling. Fifth-grade boys were whisked off to the gym to receive instruction from their coaches – in retrospect, not a wise choice for those boys – as we girls were lined up and marched off, single-file, to the cafeteria where we came under the fierce instruction of the school nurse, Miss Bettina Murske, a robust woman with fine dark hairs on her upper lip and a deep, man-like voice, a spinster who had dedicated her life to elementary school nursing and who would now, reluctantly, assume the task of properly educating the 11-year-old girls at Hyde Park Elementary in regards to puberty and menstruation and copulation and gestation and child birth.

We watched the filmstrip on the school's only working projector, a film which was narrated by someone who sounded suspiciously like Walter Cronkite who, in a happy, isn't-this-great kind of voice claimed that we were about to embark upon the most exciting adventure of our lives: puberty. The filmstrip itself consisted only of pen-and-ink outline drawings of the female body from the neck to the knees. The illustrator had given her well-developed, symmetrical breasts, including larger-than-life nipples, and a tiny pear-shaped womb with each fallopian tube – one on the right and one on the left side – curling under into a lazy "C" and culminating in ovaries which were filled with little black dots. The womb trickled off, at the base, into a thin tunnel-like opening whose terminus was obscured by what appeared to be a mass of tiny curly hairs penned in: pubic hair, the narrator instructed in his cheery voice. Likewise, a curly mass of hair seemed to be growing in both her underarms. He never really addressed the underarm hair so we all assumed, which seemed logical, that pubic hair also would grow under our arms. Once we learned what the pubis was, it seemed rather horrifying.

We looked dumbly from the screen to each other. This was the equipment we would need for this "great adventure" we were embarking upon? Maybe we could just stay home with our smooth, hairless bodies and continue on with our unadventurous lives. . . .

The film cut away to a close-up of the womb and the little dots in the ovaries suddenly became small round circles: "…ovum, from the Latin, for egg." That part I got right away because I had gathered eggs before at my grandfather's place in Arkansas and understood that we were like hens in that way: we would produce eggs from that opening, eggs slick with blood and mucus. We would put them into a bucket once a month, take them to the hose outside to rinse the crud from them, and then carry them indoors to the refrigerator. But then what would become of them? Surely we would not scramble them up for breakfast or make a soufflĂ© of them.

I had stopped paying close attention to the film by then, trying to visualize the experience so I missed whatever instruction was given between when the ovum was defined and how a baby starts forming inside the woman's body. That, apparently, was the critical information.

I vaguely recall words like penis, which I already knew, and ejaculation and fetus, which I did not know before the instruction, but I had nothing to attach to the words' significance in regards to the female body and could not, on my own, imagine what role a penis or its ejaculation - whatever that was - had to do with the creation of a fetus inside the body. And when the narrator said this was the "miracle of procreation," I told myself it was irrelevant at the moment and I would figure it all out when the time came, meaning when I decided one day far, far off, that I wanted to have children. What I did register, at that moment, was the look of horror and disgust that had settled on my classmates' faces.

The illustrations were bad enough, particularly the one that showed the baby, head-down inside the area where the pubic hair used to be, "being pushed into the world." Pushed? Since I knew a doctor had to be present at the birth, I assumed he would be pushing on me to get the baby out, but the illustration didn't show this. Nevertheless, in that moment, I decided I would push him right back if he put his pushy mitts on me. Adoption was always an honorable option.

At last, the filmstrip ran down to its conclusion and the happy, annoying music and exuberant voice of the narrator trickled off again to the sound of the end of the filmstrip thwapping against the full spool. Miss Murske had stepped out shortly after the film had begun, so we sat there in the still-darkened cafeteria, smelling the cafeteria odors of cleaning solvent and hot lunches, while the film slapped the spool over and over. Not a one of us could move. Not a one of us could speak.

Finally, she returned, flipping on the too-bright lights, and she wound the film backwards again, double-speed, onto the empty spool. When it finished, all ready to go again for all the fifth grade girls who would follow us in years to come, we lined up and walked back to our classrooms, to sit again among the boys who were looking very satisfied, who eyed us suddenly as if we were a prank they wanted to play. We went in with our heads down, flushed and confused, back to our assigned seats and we did not look again at the boys that day or for many days to come. Nor did we speak to them of what had happened in the dark cafeteria among girls nor ask them, ever, what had transpired in the gymnasium. But it was clear to me that they were going to get the better deal of whatever happened in puberty and in life and that sex had something to do with it, and childbirth. All that afternoon, with the slapping sound of the filmstrip still ghosting in my head, I resolved never to have anything to do with boys or sex or childbirth. And I believe, looking back now, that was the actual lesson we were being taught.

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