Portraits of Loss: excerpts from the novel, Origin
1. Man in a Boat
Savar looked without looking at the slime caught in the grasses at the edge of the inlet, at reflected light from the sky, his own oar dipping into the reflection. He saw without seeing the long fields of short green grasses, thick and close, that looked like solid land. Bits of feather floated on the surface of the water, gulls flickered overhead. He heard but did not hear the breeze in the rushes, the black fly droning in the grass.
It was what he had seen hundreds of times. He rowed to get there, he rowed to get away. He could no longer remember which way he was going. Was he returning to the stink of the cottage? Could he go there? He could not return to his sons, surely? He could not stand his wife. Her hard body, the condemnation in her eyes. Could they have known each other once? But he could not remember which way he was traveling. He knew the inlets. He knew them, but he could not remember which way he was traveling. He rowed, waiting to recognize something. He ignored the crabs scuttling at the roots of the grasses. He ignored the strong sun, the shadows it threw across the water. He ignored the fish gliding beneath the boat, he ignored the rich salt smell of the marsh. Island or city, he asked himself, again and again. He could not remember which way he was traveling. He saw the legs spread of the last whore he’d seen. He saw one of his sons, Insnar. But he could not remember how old Insnar was, he remembered him as a little child, but felt this was wrong. He was older now, wasn’t he? The water slipped beneath him. He rowed, leaning, dipping, pulling, leaning, dipping, pulling with the sun beating on him. Sweat slid down his nose, his armpits, his back and his legs until it seemed to take over, to make his whole self slide away. He watched it go, the grass, the water, the sky, his own oars, until the visions broke out in a wild hissing noise and he felt himself falling.
He awoke to the gentle thump of his boat against a bank. A stink made him retch and heave, lying on his back in the boat’s muddy water. Waking to the severe white eye of the sun, Savar winced and gagged again. His mouth was caked dry and hard. He rolled to his side, only to feel the unpleasant wet of water sloshing on his skin. It was a death stink he smelled and he pushed himself to his knees, stopping every so often to retch and heave.
Once he sat up, he could see that there were two dead fish in the boat, reeking and drawing flies. His fingers sank into the slime of scales and rotted flesh as he tossed them into the water and he bent over the side of the boat to retch again. He reached for his jug and drank the last sip of water inside of it. He had, by his bleary measurement, been unconscious for a day at least, maybe more. But when had he caught the fish? Where was he going?
2. Boy Fishing
Insnar worked the rope snarl loose with his fingers. He plucked at it, wrestled it. It was full of splintery hair bark, slivers digging under his skin as he worked. The water slapped the bank irregularly, annoying him. The random winds taunted him. Each time he heard it, he lifted his head and listened. It was though he expected someone, but no one came. It irritated him that no one came.
Other boys never worked alone. There was always someone helping. Insnar’s own father, Savar, was gone. Insnar wasn’t good at anything. He grew impatient with fishing or crabbing. The net caught on the floor of the bay, or on a snag in the reeds. When he did catch something, he most often caught mud gumpers, skins full of mud, tasting of mud, stinking of mud. Insnar picked at the knot, which wouldn’t give, fury building inside him.
His little brother didn’t have to fish. He wasn’t picking the knots from ropes. No one could get Insnar’s little brother to do anything he didn’t want to do. He just said, “No” calmly, or vanished when the time came to work.
Insnar couldn’t manage that kind of calm. He lost his temper. Sometimes with other people, especially the children. He shouted or pushed the younger children when they were in his way, and then felt bad about it, and worked harder to make up for it. His uncle and aunt were patient with him, and he tried. He kept trying. He took up all that his father didn’t do, even if he didn’t take it up and do it well. Even if he hated it.
Even if he hated his brother. Even if he hated the other boys, hated his father, hated the island. Even if he hated them all.
He could not get the rope undone. He would not get it undone. His hands twisted the knots and he remembered the day his mother burnt down the cottage, how she climbed the ladder to wake them, telling him and his brother, “Go out and catch a string of fish, or don’t come home.” They were dismayed by her face, her voice. She’d not been right for many months, and their baby sister lived at another house because of this, but the hardness, the blankness of her eyes hurt them. It was an emptiness they stared into, as if there were dark holes where her eyes had been. They scrambled into their clothes and fled, neither of them speaking to each other, taking off for opposite sides of the island.
When he saw the clouds of smoke billowing up and over the beach where he halfheartedly cast a line that day, he almost ran back, but didn’t. He turned and faced the sea. He baited his hook. He cast again. The smoke might have contained his mother. His cottage, the whole settlement. He would not go to look. He would not help. He would not look.
The rope burned his torn fingers. Insnar gritted his teeth. The water slapped the bank. The wind, the water slapping the bank, made him furious. Instead of untying it, he pulled the knot tighter, as tight as it could get, and then made new knots, cinching them into tangles as hard as nuts, making his hands bleed with the effort. Then he could see what he wanted. He could see his hands wrapping the rope around his father’s neck. He could see sleeping, and then his father’s eyes opening, face red, struggling, fearful. He could see the red welts, the bruising. He had done this to rabbits. He knew at which point they would cease to struggle. He pushed the rope into his father’s neck until that point and then beyond. In this pushing he was alive. He could see his own hands holding the rope, not letting go, the bulging eyes of his father, the tongue protruding. He could see the last breath. He could feel the freedom from his father’s face, so much, they all said, like his own.
3. Woman in Bed
Leena was breathing. Then gasping. The daughter of the dead midwife, Lutto, a girl of fifteen, stood uncertainly at the bed, talking. Leena could not tell if the girl was talking to her, or to someone else. She wanted to say the girl’s name, ask her some question, but she could not get her mouth to move.
The girl was speaking. She shook her head and moved closer, wiping Leena’s face. Leena could feel nervousness in the girl’s hands, like the buzzing of crickets. The girl checked between Leena’s legs. She was talking frantically to someone else, but Leena couldn’t hear anything over the blood rushing in her ears, the brutal pains that came and wiped out all else.
Something was wrong. She could feel it. A sick tangle of sharp inside her. It was nothing like the blinding pain she’d been told to experience, it was more than that. Something darker. Dark like the vines that wrapped and rewrapped themselves, obsessive, suffocating, into black knots on the trees. Dark like the black of swamp water, opaque and greasy. She saw the swamp, the water rushing up over her. She fought it, kicked and screamed and it receded.
She opened her eyes, later, to her husband, Paramon, white-faced, standing over her. She couldn’t hear him. He was speaking and she wanted to hear him but she couldn’t. She was trying to tell him that she couldn’t hear him. The girl was yelling at Paramon, pulling at him. The girl was hysterical, weeping. Leena was worried about Paramon, his face so white. It shouldn’t have been so pale. She wanted to ask if he was all right. He pushed the girl away. He leaned over Leena and she was blinded with a stab from the brutal dark inside her. When it subsided, she opened her eyes to his face, those eyes. His eyes. Brimming with terror and love, something bigger for once, than even Paramon could bear, he with the heart big enough for all, she saw something snap loose, tremble and fall in his strength, and she felt herself opening, streaming with sheer compassion for him, for Paramon, her love. She reeled in how much she could feel for him, how she could feel his sorrow, his devotion. She wanted to wash him of it, wash him of it all, prepare him somehow.
Oh, there is not more love than this, she thought, this is the exquisite, the bliss, and then the vines twisted her in and down, the black hole yawned, the black waters came and closed around her.
A daughter, Sillith, was born.
4. Girl in Water
In the first hour that Sillith is in the swirl, sand rises in pillars of bubbles, great hoary waves crash down, the rushing foam blinds, deafens, fills her. The fish and seaweeds that have taken her are now snatched forcibly from her body. She is picked up in the raging turbulence of the surf, scoured with sand, grit in the tender balls of her eyes, her head slammed on the hard sea floor. Too late, she kicks and tries to scream, but her mouth is filled with water, she is lifted by the flung arm or leg and crushed again, again, again. Her body is plucked and hurled against the land, each finger snapping once, sometimes twice, these jolts of pain nothing compared to the building pressure inside her head, that pressure deepens, widens, until there is nothing to lose, until there is only the pain, the scorch, the wretched losses. With the burn of Insnar’s savage need inside her, Sillith gives her body, beaten, to the voracious water, and her broken fingers dangle as she is caught in one final wave and dragged tumbling out into the cold dark shelf waiting beyond the breakers.
5. Woman Returning
Sillith’s awful breathing filled the swamp clearing. Lutto paced on the porch, talking furiously, incoherently to herself. Finally, she leaned down to Sillith, who startled her by grasping her arm desperately. Lutto shrieked and pushed at Sillith’s hands until she realized she was being used to pull the body up. Sillith’s skin, when Lutto reached to help her up, was inhumanly spongy and wet. Sillith stood, swayed, lurched into the house and fell across Lutto’s bed.
Lutto followed her in, moaning. Sillith writhed and gasped at the air. Lutto, daughter of a midwife, saw what could not have been true, that Sillith was in labor. She stood and watched Sillith. After a moment Sillith screamed in a soundless, gasping way, and spread her legs in a torrent of water and blood. In this impossible dream, Lutto moved forward to help with the birth. She saw the baby crown, and Sillith’s voice emerge in a high keening wail while hours passed. Lutto’s bleared imagination felt the lifetimes it took for the baby to come, for Lutto’s own life to lead her to the moment of birth, and Sillith’s, and the father’s, and everyone who had come before them, and Lutto spread her hands wide for a bundle of blue twisted flesh to be delivered into them.
Lutto stared. She could not say that it was not a human baby but she could not say either what it was, or that it was horrible, or that it was not without the sweetness of an infant, but it was dead, a dead thing in her hands. The infant looked, to Lutto, whose eyes filled, whose drunkenness could not offer succor or protection from what she held in her hands, some grotesque of humanity, or even the very flesh of cruelty, for nothing was more cruel, surely, than what had brought poor Sillith Wharsh to this. Weeping, Lutto wrapped the baby in an apron and said nothing to the woman on the bed.
Water began to pour from Sillith, from her eyes and nostrils and mouth, from her pores, from between her legs, the wetness spread and spread until the blankets, the mossy mattress, the whole bed was soaked and streaming, and great threads of water spilled and splashed to the floor beneath Sillith. The water pooled and rolled across the wooden floor, chasing Lutto, who, in horror, holding the dead babe to her chest, backed away from it, as it reached the sides of floorboards and poured down the sides of the walls, as it fell into the dirt of the island, upon the weeds under the house, into the black mushrooms growing there, and then the sky began to rumble. Sillith’s water seeped into the long green stalks of growing things and the sky churned, blowing the trees in wide arcs over the swamp, and Lutto, clutching the dead child, the little blue death, ran out into the rain which came thick and coursing down through the sky, striking the pine branches and gum trees, running in small dark rivulets and streams out into the woods, splashing bright circlets of water in the swamp, and flattening dark and low the ocean itself.
Lutto hunched in the rain, sobbing over the bundle in her arms, wronged by the witnessing, by the waters and the rain, by a terrible sympathy for the woman inside her cottage. She held the dead thing out in a flourish of sorrow, and the rain poured down, sopping the apron, pulling it away from the baby’s face and Lutto peered, fearfully, only to find a perfectly formed dead baby in her arms, its features complete, human, with the clear markings of his father’s face, Insnar’s face, already upon him. Lutto fainted, and she and the infant fell into a black pool of rainwater.