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Walking in the Dark
A Selected Text from Conjunctions:72, Nocturnals
What they had in common was they were smokers; everyone was a smoker then. Those three, though, they smoked to live. Cigarettes! There the cigarette would be, raised to the lips. The lips opening, only a little. The smoke drifting across the roof of the mouth. The lungs filling—this is how they recognized one another, in the green sea, green as grass, by streams of water green as glass. Connie had been in her car, driving; if she kept moving she could ignore the mess inside. To be a girl and then!—what was happening to her could never have happened to a man, her brother, for instance, beloved beloved but also her rival for as long as she’d been alive—there once was a girl in the olden days whose insides turned against her! D7, B-flat diminished. Cal. He will be greatly missed, the obituary said, but everyone knew it was a lie. The three of them knew what a big fat lie that was. Margaret had an obituary but there’d been none for Connie. You don’t get an obituary when you pick up and disappear. (Nineteen seventy-four. As if dates mean anything.) What if you were to come back? It would be so embarrassing and, more than anything, Connie didn’t want to embarrass anyone.

The living room wasn’t large but it wasn’t cramped. (At night I could see into it across the parkway.) Usually Connie sat playing her guitar on a kitchen chair she’d pulled into the corner behind the floor lamp. The lamp ran from the floor to the ceiling and had three fixtures like hair-dryer hoods on its pole. Margaret would be walking around in the part of the bedroom visible through the middle doorway, Cal passed out on the bed. No one knows for certain how the world began, he was thinking, whether it was made or whether it made itself from energy or love, if it was a piece of the sun or the Word of God, if it rose from kaos or E = mc2.

The sea, though, they all loved the sea.

Cal and Margaret were both in love with sailors.

He rides through the storm, and the cold and the warm, Connie sang, and he loves to risk his neck. And I like to know when he goes below, that it’s just below the deck.

Margaret had been going to marry a sailor. His name was James but she called him Pebble and he had grown, for her, a thick, black beard. Margaret had a fondness for pelts—human, animal, it hardly mattered. She’d been on her way around the world to meet up with Pebble in Panama when she was taken ill with acute abdominal pain and brought to La Clinique des Dames Augustines in Nice, France, where a surgeon removed an ovarian cyst as well as her appendix. Later she was given a private room, her appendix in a jar on the nightstand beside her pillow. The nurses drifted in and out in their winged white caps like ships. Like rabbits. Like rabbits they reached deep in their pockets and pulled forth pills. The moon was shining into the room. It was a big blue room, Margaret said.

Connie too had an ovarian cyst removed, the size and shape of an eggplant; the surgeon pulled it forth through an incision. These things grow inside you if you’re a girl. The planets, the galaxies, the far-off solar systems! They don’t give you your cyst to keep, even if, as Connie did, you ask for it.

When I squint my eyes I can see the three of them across the darkening parkway, the lights of cars interfering from time to time. When I squint I can see past the living room with its floor-to-ceiling light fixture and through the middle doorway and into the bedroom, where they’re sleeping together in one double bed, Cal on the left, Connie in the middle, Margaret on the right. Sometimes the arrangement is different but Cal is never in the middle. Sexual intercourse isn’t going on—for one thing, that’s not what it’s called on the other side of the parkway. If you think there’s an escape route in the fabric of mortality, a way out, like sticking your fingers through the pages of a book, guess again.

This kind of thing happens once in a while on planet earth but it’s common practice everywhere else.

Look into the night sky if you don’t believe me!

His full name was Calvin Kentfield and he came from Keokuk, Iowa, on the banks of the Mississippi. Anyone who knows the Mississippi from reading Tom Sawyer is in for a big surprise when they see it in person. How brave those young boys were to ride that wild animal under cover of darkness on a raft! How sundered this continent by the charging through it of a river unruly as an ocean! The fish that live in the Mississippi are mammoth, mud colored, with little eyes and fat, long bodies.

Margaret Wise Brown’s family plot is in Oakhill Cemetery, in St. Louis, not far from the banks of the Mississippi. Margaret isn’t buried there, though. She was cremated in Marseille and Pebble scattered her ashes in the waters off Vinalhaven. Cal wanted to be buried at sea by the Coast Guard but they refused his request. The Coast Guard, the least aggressive, the nicest of the armed forces—the one my daughter belonged to—and still they said no.

“What are you doing here?” Connie asked him. She’d seen Cal before but when and where she couldn’t remember. Walking into the living room was like coming up for air. She was playing her guitar, singing, a cigarette impaled on the tip of a guitar string, bobbing to and fro. Wanting to make a boy fall in love with her—I used to do that too, as if that was all it took, a cigarette impaled on a string to make a boy fall in love, even if he turned out to be gay and, really, what difference did that make? How sad, how lovely, how short, how sweet, Connie sang. To see that sunset at the end of the street. Her name was Connie Converse. She’d be ninety years old now, if anyone had any idea where she was.

The war was over, thank goodness. We dropped the bomb. I was born in 1946, at which time my life got forced into a shape like the pressed pennies you buy at the zoo for fifty-one cents (two quarters plus the penny you get back printed with a peacock or a polar bear or a turtle or a black widow spider complete with an hourglass on the underside of her abdomen)—a thing you can hold in your hand like the shape of a life. Though the penny wasn’t a talisman because you already owned it—it was only the shape that got altered. If you were to carve a piece of bog oak into the shape of a panka like the one my friend Alexandra gave me for my seventy-second birthday—that’s a different matter entirely. A panka’s face is featureless, so it can’t absorb anything evil through an opening like a nostril or an earhole or a mouth. It’s also footless, so it can’t run away.

I expect there will always be many episodes in human life in which one person temporarily controls the behavior of another, Connie wrote for her brother Philip’s Journal of Conflict Resolution, and many episodes in which a third party intervenes in a controlling way between antagonists. The real question is how extensive, how sustained, how nonreciprocating, and how self-perpetuating these dominance relationships are, and which party benefits most from them over time.

Margaret was rubbing animal fat into the tabletop with her fingers, making the wood shine Lamb fat, from last night’s dinner. Connie had been a vegetarian at one point but she stopped when she lived with her brother. Margaret loved mixing things, the animal you ate with the place where you ate it—this is the strange loop dearly adored by theoretical physicists. Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.” This was his first mistake. “If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. I would swallow my own heart before I let you escape.”

In the backyard of one of the mansions on the other side of the parkway there’s a tree lit from below. A gold-orange light reaches into the middle branches at nightfall, the sky above the tree yellow green, an approaching storm. Cars drive past with their headlights on as if headed somewhere. A branch of lightning; across the parkway the mansions’ security lamps are lit. The yellow-green light in the panes of the greenhouse just beyond the concrete wall of the Metro Link. Plantings in the median and horns starting to honk.

But still, no wind. No wind at all. Where did it go?

In one of his books Calvin Kentfield describes meteorological events throughout the winter of 1973. Unexpectedly heavy snow in the plains, unnaturally prolonged rains in the Midwest, freak spring blizzards in the upper-river states. The Mississippi River system was producing the most devastating floods in recorded history. Through April and into May, from Minnesota to New Orleans, the rivers crested far above flood stage, receded slightly, then, fed by rain and snow, crested even higher—four times in all—swamping millions of acres of farmland, submerging dozens of river towns, summer resorts, fishing camps, industrial plants, urban housing developments, railroads, county roads, and federal highways.

What really happened? Everyone always wants to know the answer to this—not so much what is true. Is this a fact, everyone wants to know.

My daughter loved The Runaway Bunny more than Goodnight Moon. “If you become a tree,” said the little bunny, “I will become a sailboat, and I will sail away from you. And if I founder, or am marooned, if I am swallowed by a wave and become bride to the sea, it will be better for me. I will find rest on the cool floors of the ocean.” I can see my daughter looking into one of those fancy Easter eggs with a landscape inside visible through an aperture surrounded by inedible decorative frosting. How old are you? my daughter is saying to the things she sees inside. Cars. The houses across the way. Me. How old are you?

The day Margaret died was my sixth birthday. November 13, 1952. In 1952, according to Our Baby’s First Seven Years, I was suffering from “boils and sties,” my TB tine test was negative, though it would be positive one year later, and there’s no information about my party, the food served, the guests, the presents, my mother evidently having lost interest in birthdays after I attained the age of five, at which time, according to Our Baby’s First Seven Years, I was given a “piece of antique jewelry.” As if it were the secret to it all, Cal wrote, they fell to their knees together in the light of the moon and grabbed for it. They could not find it, not even when the snow melted in the spring, but they had seen it as it fell, glistening brightly golden as a halo, or a wedding ring, or the kind of ring that sailors sometimes used to fix through one ear to show they had crossed the China Sea.

All three of you are dead and I never knew any of you when you were alive, though there was a moment there—let’s say the moment from the day of my birth until some date after the moment in September 1975, when Calvin jumped to his death off the cliff and before Connie vanished—when I was alive and so were all of you, Connie in a recording studio, Margaret on a boat with her betrothed, Calvin writing a book.

We go walking in the dark, Connie was singing, sitting on her kitchen chair in the corner of the living room on the other side of the parkway, playing her guitar. We go walking out at night. And it’s not as lovers go, two by two, to and fro; but it’s one by one—one by one in the dark. We go walking out at night. As we wander through the grass we can hear each other pass, but we’re far apart.

Cal at the edge of a cliff in California, looking out over the moonlit ocean, Margaret in a bed in Nice, kicking up her moonlit leg. The great green, the great green room. Cal at the edge of the cliff, spreading wide his arms, Margaret on the bed, kicking her leg high in the air like a cancan dancer. She wanted to show the doctor how good she was feeling postoperation and then, worse luck, she dislodged a clot and died from an embolism. But Connie—where was Connie? Night had fallen, the days had gotten short. Maybe this was the shortest day of the year. Her VW bug had very little horsepower but then again Connie hardly weighed anything. Tunnels took the heat from the exhaust into the interior of the car; it was very cold outside and Connie didn’t have a lot of meat on her bones. Looking at maps. Talking to herself. Driving her blue VW bug from the midwestern city where she had been living with her brother, Philip, and toward the coast, passing through town after town and then stopping to live in one of them. Buying groceries. Visiting the clinic to have her insides unraveled, trailing time like the gauze trains we made for ourselves as queens, as little girls.

“If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air,” said the bunny, “I will become a little boy and run into a house. I will give up all my magic, and become human, and grow old, and die, to be gone from you.” “If you become a little boy and run into a house,” said the mother bunny, “I will become your mother and catch you in my arms.”

My daughter: born in darkness, pulled forth from darkness. I can’t see where she will end. Even to write this is terrifying.

Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, including The Silk Road (Graywolf). Among other honors, she has won the Katherine Anne Porter Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and The Lannan Award for Fiction. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.