Conjunctions:75 Dispatches from Solitude

Night Is the Best Counsel
One cannot lie to oneself in the snow: there are times, the woman tells the man, who is next to her, trudging toward the river, when what is going on outside in the world is what is going on inside of me; climate change is more evident in the wintertime, she tells him, on this crisp air trek through the snowbound vale of the forest; farmers can no longer count on nature for any reliable means; planting season is earlier now, but in turn more crops are being destroyed by last-minute snowstorms and unforeseen stretches of cold. We see the change. We have always seen it. We just never let it do what it needs to do to us: turn us into men and women and children of change, of action and not reaction. Our reaction is to do nothing. But it is only early January and they, the lovers, and everyone else and every thing still move between a sky so blue and an earth so white that they blind one to other things; ice and snow have covered the landscape for nearly two months now and the lovers and the provincials are growing more and more solitary in the subzero atmosphere, for some days it is just too insane to go outside; but if one must, the nose needs to be muffled; the woodpiles have dents in them and the woodstoves are working overtime, so that now the lovers and the provincials are all eyeing their split logs more carefully and counting more cords and space heaters per square foot to make sure they’ll be covered in the cold stretches to come; today, on their way to the river, there are outbursts of animal tracks everywhere, and the lovers following them see them as reviving reminders that not everything slows to solids in winter or sleeps, as spurts of verve, for rabbit and deer and predator trails spread so seemingly inexhaustibly that almost anyone can track their triumphs and defeats, so that on this crisp air trek through the snowbound vale of the forest, the Black and Asian couple—as the provincials have come to know them—encounter something unusual in this wild grid of newly grown evergreens in the form of a puff of snow, for since they didn’t see anything at first, they can’t say for sure what has vanished—but now they can: a coywolf, a hybrid of the coyote and the wolf, a liminal being that is bounding up a wood-crested hill on the other side of a clearing when it turns to look back so that they’re staring at each other for a bit, fixed, the lovers and the descendant of the lupus, the size of a shepherd dog, though the lovers cannot tell this, its black-tipped tail and reddish, grizzled gray coat and face frozen in place, yet they stare, until it turns and ascends swiftly into the wood. The lovers stand in silence, then the man, concerned about a pack, wonders if they should return to the cabin. The woman tells him that coywolves are not known for hunting humans, especially when they’re afraid of them and when there’s an abundance of white-tailed deer about and being cunning and all-devouring, opportunistic, one can certainly see how they could sustain themselves on anything, from raccoons to rabbits to muskrats, from minks to moles to mice, from flora to fruit to refuse: they have the most plasticity of any other species up here; yet, since the lovers are not wearing their fluorescent orange vests over their double layers of winter wear and coywolves are now hunted throughout the season, they are overly cautious about nearby hunters missing their prey—and there is always that lurking racial concern, if only in the man’s mind for the moment. It is getting colder and cloudier as they head back and on the way back fat plenteous snowflakes begin to fall as they follow the still-visible foot traces of their past, for in the vale of the forest it is easy to get lost, everything looks like everything else every which way with wispy fingers of flurries curling and curling come here come here; the crystal skeletons of snow-covered deciduous trees and the shaggy white coats of evergreens are as far as the eye can see, which is why the lovers backpacked provisions—the vests escaping them—yet without the evidence of their movements in the snow, indeed, it would be difficult to navigate the return; in advance of the ascent to the cabin—when they’ll be laboring without words and stopping to catch their breath, ungloved and mouthing and breathing on the tight beaks of their fingertips—the woman tells the man of another dream, a recurring one, and though she last experienced it seven or so months ago, it remains as intense—if not even more— as the recent one of her father, for it reminds her of her mother: In the dream of the black wolf, she says, I am frightened of it, not because it harms me but because it refuses to harm me; it does not maul me as I lie there on my side in the snow, my spine against the spine of an oak, a colossal sawtooth, with the snowfall covering me like a comforter. It waits. It is waiting for me to die. For even when the pack arrives, having spoored the alpha, they too wait. One is forever foolishly intrepid, though, and starts to inch forward, belly to snow with the snout shoveling it, throwing sly glances at the alpha to test it, until a snarl makes it retract into the pack. I lie there. The dream always ends there. The lovers reach the ascent to start their zigzagging climb toward the cabin, but only when they stop for a rest does the man decode the dream: The alpha is not showing pity but prudence, he says; it will not let the pack become contaminated, it will not let them feed off your desire to die—for they are all one and the lowest of these wolves is you, in this disease state, the omega, and the highest is the alpha: it knows that it has to let this part of itself starve itself to death. Soon, after another rest, they reach the summit, and then come upon the cabin. After the sun has set, after they have settled and had supper, they decide to retire, but by lamplight, in a bedchamber of the double heart, the woman lies alone in her lover’s bed. She touches the closed maroon curtains of his room, tempted by the dark window mirror, but she does not open them. The space heater is humming, and it is getting even warmer when he returns, the lover, having stoked the fire in the furnace, fed it wood. He gets into the bed, sitting up against the headboard, and covers his lower half with the comforter as she spies the papers in his hand, folded in thirds; she fancies him having saved them from the furnace, the pages of one of his missives, but she knows he only retrieved them from his desk in the rec room, for she recognizes her handwriting. Night is the best counsel, she says, so, forever foolishly intrepid, she glides a finger over his knuckle and on down to the digit to make him slowly expose it, the missive, to unfold it and to hold it up to her face, for her to inhale herself, for her scent is still there in the mind but her slit hardly knows it, remembers it, it only remembers forgetting it—like a short piece of thread that had been passed through to the other side of a needle’s eye—but with the black oblivion outside and the maroon curtains closed, like inverted labia aroused by a rub, after drawing back the curtain of shame, the black oblivion inside now opens her inwardly: Hold me open, she always opened, for once more he is reading one of her missives, yet aloud and dearly to her. He will be conducting a séance with it. It is a memento, a reminder of a powerful memory of discovery while he was reading it on the row, in a place where he had thought there were no new memories worth remembering, no new feelings worth feeling, it was one of the few missives he was allowed to keep, for since it was written after those interviews—after which he had been humiliated and beaten and then taken into solitary—it had yet to be written, thus confiscated, a missive he had received only after he’d heard he was to be released from the row, from prison, for since she did not want to burden him before she now felt that he needed to know what her memory had in store, in full, for them—though she had written the missive months before she sent it to him—for up until then he only knew that her son had been taken by that act of God, and man, but not about that act during the act, so that now so that now as her lover is reading this, as the voice of the missive is possessed by another’s, or rather dispossessed of the body of the missive by another’s, not the man’s, open my mouth, says the voice, pull back the curtain of shame so that I may give back the name, for I can still smell the reek coming from it, my mouth of sex, that nautical stink that won’t sink and be at peace in me and my belly for they—some shadowy they—say that it will take me the same sum of years as my son was to grieve him—five—and it has only been two and a half and so I cannot expect for him to sink and be at peace in me midway and perhaps he never will as he should, as I ought not to be, for I am a sibyl who is her own and only oracle now, a god who is her own and only atheist: I do not believe in myself, my love—so how can I believe in what I have done? And as the man becomes the woman, metamorphosing into his new form, as this voice that is not his voice possesses or rather dispossesses hers from the body of the missive the cabin and the double black oblivions are all meshing and blending and metamorphosing into a sea and snow into salt water and dark into daytime for there will come a time, it says, through her lover tonight, when water will turn into blood and soon she is smelling the salt water and feeling the scalding summer sun kissing her suntan-lotioned face as the soft, fat frame of her sentient son, at the great brown-green girth of the earth, in the warm equatorial waters of the Atlantic, splashes between the support of her open arms, and then there is another, and another and another and there are several other mothers here at this great brown-green girth of the earth, all gathered together today beyond the broad break of a sandbar, and she is in her midthirties again, over three years ago, and is transatlantically in water as warm as bathwater on a fiery foreign beach on a spotless noonday today under a skin-darkening star, this American, this Asian American, and her son, girdled by a dark indigenous assemblage of West African women, and her guide, a friend of a friend, all glistening under this skin-darkening sun and holding their sentient children above the water’s hazel surface to show them how to stroke and to float with their fat in the sea salt without any floatation device, for there are none on this nontouristy beach besides the coconuts attached to the fishermen’s nets, for this serene broad break in the waves before the sandbar, in the hazel iris of these equatorial waters—their movable pupils being the calm centers of distant storms—is a deceptively perfect place to play today, today she is not other here, she is not an Asian of Asia or an Asian of America, for though she is often referred to as the American by these women when speaking to one another—merely out of convenience, as a quick clarification of who is being spoken of—she has been un-othered by these other mothers who are much, much darker than her on this primordial megacontinent in the hot equatorial junction of the dark blue thighs of all mankind all colors and creeds and where the custom is coastal and postcolonial and now allows for these women to partake of this newly unrestricted sector of the sea at this time of day and heat where they are all free to laugh and to bare skin and breasts and teeth under a sky and no male eye so blue with a sun so bold that it blinds one to other things, but these indigenous women are the mothers of the human others, who are so dark that they are black and so black that they are blue and bright and as shiny as obsidian stones—a darkness that had long since birthed the many permutations of beauty across the globe to maybe one day eclipse the lunar surface itself—yes, obsidian, yet malleable and rhythmical flesh and discourse and diatribe so that this whole world seems much heavier and fuller than her own, elemental and alive and innate, only to have these thoughts parted and dispersed by a colossal cruise ship, anachronistically passing by like a penthouse gliding across the waters, very long and multilayered, the building beneath it immersed— Look! Look!—some of the women are yelling in unison, in colonial or Creole or tribal tongue—The savages are waving! The savages are waving!—the American’s guide, a friend of a friend, among them, and then they are all laughing and waving and shifting their hips without wondering why or if this great white ship is passing by too close, for they know why—it’s a safari by boat, with their bare wet bosoms in the passengers’ binoculars—and if has never really bothered them before—for ships rarely passed by in the past and so close and when they did the women were never permitted to be here and when they pass by now the women rarely are—the American’s guide, another indigenous woman with a child, a son, has a face that bears the marks of her tribe and diatribes, a friend of a local friend who invited her here today, who speaks the colonial language of the vanquished so the American can understand her, a colonial language unlike the American’s colonial language yet one the American has been speaking fluently for years, during her past wanderings across other countries that were once colonized by the same tongue and prior to her matrimony, prior to her pregnancy, despite her family— for she is not normal—but now the American’s arms are under the soft, plump torso of her horizontal son as a swell rolls across the surface, so that now she is standing on her toes, her chin barely above the surface, her heart in her throat, but her boy is laughing and splashing and treading water without needing any help from her, as the other mothers around him are treading water as well, holding their children, these women who are so much like the market women who are always smiling and doting on her boy, calling him Buddha! Buddha! while pinching his cheeks and who is kicking quite well with the water even higher now, dog-paddling in a tight circle, saying, Mama Mama look! with her treading water as well, though now the water has leveled again, at her chest, and standing again, feet in the sand, she continues to study her son, his strokes easy, no wasted energy, and she remembers the saxophonist from the other night, from the hotel jazz club, the local who was trying to seduce her by offering to give her son swimming lessons in the hotel pool today, while her husband, another Asian American, was answering a critical call on his mobile cellular phone outside where it was less loud, as their son slept fifteen floors above them—where her husband is today, in the hotel room, taking a video conference call on his portable computer, at the behest of his boss—for their local friend, their nanny, was watching their son last night, whose own child, her daughter, they’d find sleeping beside their son like a little wife—For to them, the voice says, through her lover tonight, everyone is theirs, and I notice this mostly with yours, but not so much with mine, yet due to an appointment, fortuitously timed, the nanny couldn’t come to the beach with her daughter that day—and as her husband was still away, after she graciously declined the saxophonist’s offer, he spoke and spoke about his music without ever taking a breath and so she had to stop him to ask him about his sustained intensity, about his circular breathing, and he said it was like being in the middle of a pool, like steadying yourself on the slope between the shallow end and the deep end, with your chin barely above the surface and your heart in your throat and while standing on the tips of your toes— that, he said, is sustained intensity, which equals ecstasy—but she is glad to have brought her son here today, to this beach, instead of to a swimming pool, for she is not normal—Salt is sacred, says the voice, the salt of the earth—and now Mama Mama look! for she has been watching her son kicking and swimming while thinking of the saxophonist, yet only now is she really seeing him again, she embraces and kisses him, and then watches as the guide swims around them and her feet disappear, as her body goes vertical—for the sea is rapidly receding—and they, the American and the guide, are both embracing their sons as the sea sucks them in, their legs, the receding seaweed catching at their ankles and the seabed sifting through their toes, for the sea itself seems to be coercing them to devolve or regress and return to some piscine way of being and breathing by way of this circular motion, this path of least resistance, for some of the other mothers are now shouting and rushing for their children, who are several feet away from them, for a massive wave—born of the cruise ship’s colossal wake—surges and overwhelms and pummels them, breaking beyond the sandbar behind them, the massive uprush of the swash now feeding the massive backwash into the vast and foamy brine by way of a path of least resistance, the board break of the sandbar—so that now so that now they’re all caught in the rip, the mothers and the children, moving at a velocity much, much faster than any one of them could ever swim against, than anyone could ever swim against, trapped in this atrocious pipeline of water maybe fifty feet wide and who knows how long while shooting out to sea at several feet per second perhaps, so that whoever’s at hand is in hand, as these mothers move farther and farther away from shore, grabbing and gripping hands and thinking of God thank God or oh God oh God: my child is not my child; I remember, says the voice, I remember one of the sisters saying to me, one of the Buddhist nuns later on, that it was a selfless act, yet all I can see is my hand still holding on to that dear little hand for its dear little life, onto some other woman’s son and not even thinking of mine at the time—and this and this is what gets to me, that I wasn’t even thinking of mine not so much of mine if only for a moment, but when I am I can do nothing but allow this rip to take me and the child past the breaking point and out into its head and I can only hold up his head by having him on top of me and riding on my back, scanning the sea only to see some trying to swim against it, the rip, who’ll get tired and be swept away anyway and then my eyes fall upon my guide, whose own eyes must’ve fallen on me at the same time, for though she’s far away she is crying and screaming for me—no no not for me— for her child, she is screaming for her child who is half-limp and on my chest, yet when he hears her cry carrying across the surface he starts and struggles and I have to swim fast to catch him again after I lose hold of him—but then my heart stops: for my son is farther out; I can still hear her, the cries of that guide carrying across the water her horror, for though she’s out of the rip she’s out of her mind, yet treading water, she has gotten and is getting smaller as her son and I slip toward my son, and I will never stop hearing her— Bring me my boy! Bring me my boy!—and I will never I will never stop seeing it, the sight of my son dog-paddling—with no wasted energy—for where he is the rip seems to have ceased as he looks and looks straight at me—I know I know he’s looking at me, I can feel it as far as he is from me—he wants he wants to get back to me as his own goddamn mother is moving away, swimming sideways and cursing herself, with one arm wrapped around another child while her other arm is stroking away, swimming parallel to the shore for some shadowy reason—for some shadowy reason they must’ve told her to do so, for she never knew to do so—for she must swim toward someone and she can’t carry them both, so that once she’s out of the rip she starts swimming toward the shore, toward the guide who’s now swimming toward her too and once she meets her she can scarcely see her for already she is swimming back, childless and alone, but her shoulders are shot and her lungs are shit and she’s gasping and thinking and thinking and gasping you are not going to drown you are not going to drown, but she can’t see her son anywhere anymore, and she’s not even sure if she’s swimming to the right spot, for the life of the rip has stopped, yet she just keeps on toward the head of that dissipating stream of foam and dives under and then nothing but nothing but a stinging brown murk of aqua and bubbles and seaweed floating about, as her legs cramp and her arms end and her sinuses are shot with salt, the sharp pain at the base of her brain, as her mouth opens and closes and opens to swallow you are not going to drown you are not going to drown you are not going to drown. . . .
Now, at night, in the dead of winter, she is lying in her lover’s arms. His back is still against the headboard, but her missive is now scattered across the floor. She is crying. You can’t come in me anymore, she says, you can’t come in me anymore. I’m sorry I’m sorry, he says. I won’t have another I won’t have another. We won’t have another we won’t have another. And then her eyes rise, for her cheek was against his chest: We won’t? We won’t? We won’t, my love, we won’t. . . . The worst thing, she says, after a while, is thinking about what he must’ve thought when he saw me moving away. That I didn’t want him. That I didn’t love him. And then her lover says to her, very softly: At that moment, not any other, you had a life in your hands. That’s what one of the sisters said to me, she says, one of the Buddhist nuns, and that not saving my son was a selfless act. I thought about that, about them, about becoming one of them. Yet: I would’ve had to disrobe to love you. I would disrobe to love you We had to focus on one pant leg at a time, she continued, my husband and I. He stayed with me for six months afterward, when my own family would not, throughout the insane asylums of the recovery resorts, throughout the drinking. I could’ve lied and said that I didn’t see him, our son—but that would’ve been unbearable—We have the right to be angry, I said to him instead, but it is not our duty. And then later, before he left me, You are not a walking reminder, he said to me, as much as I am a walking reproach—and can’t help it. I want so badly to but can’t help it: you would do it the same. And then I looked at him, for I couldn’t look at him until then, and he looked away: I am a mirror, I said, and men don’t like what they see in me. But we continued to have sex for a time, and now he has long since remarried and has his twins, a boy and a girl—which made me relapse when I heard about it: I wanted to be alone, you see, but I wanted him to be alone with me. God, what awful conduits we are, you and I: two disconnected cords trying to retain their identities, still believing they are holding some past electricity—and the only reason we are not drinking too much now, my love, is because of the forest; we really don’t need to have spirits in the house. Even the coroner, a man obsessed with them, had said it, that death is a myth. I kept coming to see him, that blue-black man in the morgue, with his white crown and his silver flask and his steely gray beard, even though he never sent for my husband or me: I was a zombie, you see, so I knew where I ought to be; we stayed in that country for a week, my husband and I, and I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat—all those things moving around down there and just nibbling and nibbling away—I was a vitamin-deficient organism existing in the lavishness of a touristy establishment, contemplating flight from the fifteenth floor—yet I still don’t know why I never did it—feeling the acute caress of a phantom limb in the darkness of a hotel room—that agony we, the affluent, always hypothesize about between martinis—but the body would never be found; three children had died on that day and they only found two, another boy and a girl—and I couldn’t even find a comfort in this, in this sick perversity: that somewhere in that dry and loud and dusty city two other women were ripping their wombs out and wrapping them around their heads to carry the ghosts of their dead around like buckets of water from the river; and the only reason why I wasn’t among them, the dead, was because of a fisherman who had fished me out, right after I swam back out, the one who saw the wave wipe us out, the voyeur; he retrieved me and revived me as the warm water on my bare breasts, under that skin-darkening sun, evaporated quicker than I could wrap my head around the matter. You are a miracle, the coroner said. Yet I felt and still feel that nature does not and cannot absorb this variety of raw and invisible anger, it can only provide a protective covering to numb it—for you will always be conscious of the supreme and irrefutable fact that it didn’t need to happen. That is the rack. But you could’ve never let that other child go, the coroner said to me, during my last visit, for he was a comfort to me, for he would always say let me see whenever he spoke to me—as you would say to me. Let me see. As if I were a body without a murderer. Or rather: as if I were a murderer without a body. Maybe we kept each other company, because he was always surrounded by spirits that only spoke in terms of the present, like amnesiacs, who still believed in the delusions of their egos so deeply that—even beyond matter— their minds still moved around: But to be honest, he said, before taking a swig from his flask, I would rather be calm than right.

An artist and novelist from Philadelphia, Marc Anthony Richardson won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and an American Book Award for his debut novel, Year of the Rat (Fiction Collective Two, 2016). Richardson is also the recipient of a PEN America grant, a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright fellowship, and a 2021 Creative Capital award. He teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and in 2021 will be a writer-in-residence at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. “Night Is the Best Counsel” is an excerpt from his upcoming novel, Messiahs (Fiction Collective Two, 2021).