Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Brief Engagement in the Pennsylvania Dutchlands

There is no such thing as virginity...Purity is a negative state. 
-Mr. Compson from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury

Becky comes out into the dusk. Cornstalks rustle as the sharp wind undulates over the land and into the gravyblue of the sky distant. Goosebumps pimple her chilled body through her dirtstained white dress. A shiny silver ring glimmers on her finger. Dinner sets heavy within her. Night is coming.

She does not walk far from the house. Ten steps down the crusted freeze of the roosterpath tundra the clatter of the dishes fades into the rural silences. About her the stripped bushes and the naked branches of the trees are whipped about into frenzy by the gusts. She does not squint or wince to that tempest. It even seems to caress her. It runs the trajectory of her high cheekbone and sharp jaw. It smoothes the line of her hair back. It writes a healthy ruddy hue upon her olive skin. As though the elements had composed the girl kindly, the dark evidence of their truer natures rattling the windows behind her, scouring over the land to seek unsheltered life and snuff it out. A Fedallah to this as yet unwitting and as yet unprovoked Ahab.

By the edge of the woods where the forest meets the cropfield there is a stump. Mossdecayed, rotting, hard like a block of steel in the winter bone. There she sits crosslegged and without hesitation, the wind blowing back her hair and jetstreaming her jawline and perhaps even forming that self-assured expression of her closed mouth. An expression that seems to doubt its appointed task but not how that task must be done: the bear that is dusklight voyeur to the mountain lion's fresh kill.

She sits there and watches how the gray clouds, in holding the final imprint of the light from the day, in bestowing their swirling gusts with a knifelike chill, wash like turkey gravy over the navy of the young sky. In fusion they seem to say something to her, something of the nature of liminal moments.

Becky had emerged from the womb a lonesome child, made brotherless seventeen years past by that pubescent plight of all thoughtful young country boys who take books too seriously. She did not know about him until she was seven. She made friends with a girl in school who had four older brothers. The other girl told her all about what a brother was. One day, sitting on the old dead stump, Becky asked her mother what she thought a brother was.

Why? her mother asked.

Just cause, Becky said through her braces.

That is not an answer.

Just cause mamma. Everyone says something different about everything.

And that was how Becky found out about her brother Moses. Her brother Moses, hidden from Becky until now, born when her mother was but sixteen, born in a barn on a bed of hay because Becky's father scorned modern medicine, born into the screams and wails of a suburban teen who had thought picking apples would be a romantic job one summer and got a baby in her belly because of it, born into the arms of that very father, preacher of alternative medicine, library bedecked with Kesey and Ginsberg and Whitman and Kerouac but not Flaubert or Goethe, owner of an apple farm and father to a baby from a girl who had once felt, when lost in the woods on a school field trip to Loyalsock State Forest, such a total enervation of spirit and pleasant silence of mind, that she swore to work towards the reattainment of that wildernessborne ecstasy forevermore. It was from such a womb, into such a pair of hands, that the child Moses was born. From such a womb, into such hands.

Though young, Becky's mother performed her tasks in what most would have called an admirable manner. She married Becky's father immediately and took little Moses for long walks on the apple farm during the day when it was not raining. At night when her husband went into the basement to get high, she would set Moses down between her knees by the fire and read to him parts of her favorite stories. She read to him of Arwen and Aragorn, of O. Henry's Jim and Della, later of Odysseus and Penelope; finely selected bellywarming treatises of fantasy from the world's most vivid imaginariums. When Moses was old enough he read too, of great travels, of adventure, of love and sacrifice and good living. All this his father encouraged, all this his mother adored.

Accordingly, Moses grew into a young man of a precocious idealism, the depths of which his parents could have never imagined. This was not a little helped by his saturation into Judeo-Christian culture. Invocations of guilt infected his high school life daily; altruistic sentiments of sacrifice appealed to him far more than what was normal for a youth his age. Though he publicly spurned all institutionalized dogmatism with the flair of a wartime orator, he took to heart and to practice the ideals to which he was exposed. And his love of literature only burned deeper as he grew. He voraciously read Ernest Hemingway. His favorite was For Whom the Bell Tolls. His least favorite was The Sun Also Rises. When pressed by his teacher, he said that he did not find weakness to be very motivational. Nothing is stopping Brett, Moses said. Nothing is stopping Jake. Even worse, Becky's mother reflected (in telling this story), Moses found it funny when Tom Sawyer says to Huck Finn, when Huck wants to set Jim free by stealing the key to his jail cell, Why, hain’t you ever read any books at all? Who ever heard of getting a prisoner loose in such an old-maidy way as that? Moses had laughed at that part. Moses was Tom. Tom in a later era, an era which charged for such lofty sentimentality a far more lasting price than a single bullet to the leg.

Things could have gone no other way. The first love which idle chance inflicted upon Moses was illfated from the instant of its inception. The girl was Pegeen O'Reilly, a classmate, born of the countryside the same as him, purported to be a lover of books the same as him. She of course had a soft, gentle way about her. Her wide, pale eyes seemed in constant peril of being swallowed by the rushing swells of their own skyblue innocence. He glowed in the attention she turned on him, in their childlike games, in a sweet intimacy with another person which he had never really considered possible. He would meet her by moonlight in the country between their farms, sneaking out his window and dashing over the dark verdure hills, a book of poetry tucked under his arm like a runningback, a note for her tucked deep in the folds of his jacket. The illicit nature of their union, the embers of romantic rebellion in his chest that had, since opening his first book, yearned to be kindled, and coupled with the pastoral beauty of the Pennsylvania Dutchlands, made their seemingly blossoming love a perfect storm of catastrophe.

Moses' lifelong search for an ideal to defend had come to an abrupt halt. Never before had he been so alive. It became his sworn duty to defend at all costs the glimmer he had seen in Pegeen's eyes. He called it the skyblue, in the journal he kept. As if this comparison, this name, described her precious quality better than any photograph, any essay, any other description ever could. A simile is worth a thousand words. What could compare to that sort of sweetness and innocence, other than the endless light azure of the sky on a pleasant day. He knew no better than to wax such mawkish cliches; in fact, that he knew no better was the point. He quickly and effortlessly came to do all of his thinking in such lofty language, saying it aloud and proudly to anyone bold enough to broach the subject of love or lust. His life had become reorganized around this priority, and the weight of commonplace tasks vanished, like dust swept from an object long inert.

In all true stories, Becky's mother said, there is a wrong which cannot be righted. Pegeen came from a rigorously Amish family that sent her away to public school after she was banned from her first for some unnamed blasphemy. Sadly, the precise breed of girl that Moses would swim across oceans for; chaining the cement blocks to his ankles himself, if that's what was necessary.

Pegeen's mother was abusive and unfaithful, her father too pious to do any more than deny the reality that was his fractured family. Time and again Moses confronted them without Pegeen's knowing, and, wielding all the holy righteousness of his literary upbringing, eloquently inspired them to be honest with their daughter. He spoke, in not so many words, of ideas such as carpe diem, and of the power of love, of forgiveness. He told them he thought of them as his family, or something to that effect. He may have even said he cared about anyone who cared about Pegeen. Something in his voice must have been reminiscent of their churchly hours, because the O’Reillys fell irrevocably in love with Moses. When he left the final time, it was with three jars of freshly pressed cider, teary hugs, and insistent promises that things would change.

Like many young men and women raised in anything approximating American middleclass society, Moses had done very little of what could accurately be called real living. He had an inherent and instinctual belief in the goodness of the human race and had been exposed to nothing to lead him to believe the contrary. Anyone could do anything. He had found his flower, skyblue-eyed with dimples beside her smile. Faith was required, and Moses practiced constant faith. He idolized, in a near apotheosis of admiration, Franny Glass and her Jesus Prayer. He believed that anything done with a good intention was holy beyond conception. He did not believe the quote about the composition of the path to hell; in fact, he openly scorned all competing dogma. To say he was blinded would be severe and perhaps melodramatic, yet the point remained that all logic and reason that fell outside of the spectrum that was the five feet and two inches that comprised the form of little Pegeen O'Reilly, was blurred out into irrelevance.

What came next was absolutely inevitable, as unstoppable as the monthly rains or the winter freeze or the occasional droughts or the gusts of wind which famously tore across the open pastures of that country. It happened one frigid November night, when he found her trembling on the bank of the hill that was their meeting spot. He knew instantly something was horribly wrong. Her chin rested between her folded knees and she was staring off to the starless night and the sweeping skies and the darkened country that had been her family's for generations. She did not turn into his arms when he held her. He sat down, caressed her cheek, kissed her forehead, his blood boiling and his stomach flipping over and his heart slamming hard against his ribcage like a trapped lion. When she finally turned to him he saw: her shirt stained pink with blood, tears and sweat running down her cheeks. A purple welt swelled beside her eye, which was bloodshot. Her lip was fattened, cut deeply in separate places. Crimson rushed from a gash on her cheek and ran down her neck. His whole body shook and she told him not to go.

It was her? he asked.

It was both, she said, taking his hand in her own.

But he did. And the last time he ever saw Pegeen was when he glanced back up the slope to her crumpled form, her eyes only dimly ruminating his stumbling egression through the folds of her dirtied garments, his own eyes a shade of possessed entirely not his own. He ran the mile to the house with that unholy power vested in him, that power reserved for all those damned to the crueler fates of his kind, that power of such immense evil that it can only be unearthed from a starting velocity of such great good. He went and punched holes in the walls of their house and smashed his forehead against the windowpanes until they broke and ripped the doors to all the rooms off their hinges. He was not an animal, not yet, anyway; he was merely stripped of any of that loose effluent material that makes a man a man. There was no one home. He sprinted back to the top of the hill. Pegeen was gone.

A trail of blood led into the cornfields. It was there that he mired for the next twelve hours, through the night, into the day, until he had searched every row and the woods beyond the rows and the riverbanks and dusty fields beyond that. When the police came around noontime he told them everything, and they took him home.

Pegeen did not turn up that week. Moses spent each night camped by her house. He lasted three more weeks until he leapt off a cliff in a nearby valley, there to perish amidst the glittering quartzfreckled shallows of the Susquehanna River.

Her mother said that Moses would sometimes talk about Pegeen, in those last days. She knew nothing to do but to listen. Declaring love, he said, was like playing a fatal round of poker. You threw all you held within you on the betting table: the light of your insoul, the strength and courage and power of your convictions, the holy unassailable love around which you organized your life. You threw it carelessly, unknowingly. You let it slip gladly, sure that all your chips would  be returned to you tenfold. To gain anything worth gaining you had to risk everything, this was a freely admitted preconception. Seemingly you were without a choice. And when you lost you were left with nothing. You not only did not gain the girl but you did not gain back your chips. Your idealism, your passion. She took a bit of it, perhaps; even the most unrequited of loves flatter the rejecter in some way. Yet most of it slipped away into nothingness, that black pit of vapidity where all crushed faith was sucked away to forevermore, until it was recycled in cruder form to a child some years on who must live through that same excruciation again, should he be cursed with the sworn enemies of the tranquilized contentment that moved our world: passion, thoughtfulness, imagination.

Out on the stump she sits, statue in the wind with brown hair billowing like a maestro's curtain sweeping dramatically into the night. On her finger glints the shiny silver ring, numbed now and made red by the cold. All those days me, Becky, spent running into the wind and all those days you, wind, spent running into me. And all that shaping of me done by you that happened in my face and my skin and the muscles in my legs yes but shaping that went on deeper too. She kneels down into the hardened tundra by the stump and begins to pry at its holdings. Stiff and cracked clumps come away, the keratin of her short fingernails bending as she digs in. After a few minutes of prying she loses all feeling in her hands. And is it even such an absurd thought to think that natural beauty comes from the wind, from the sky, from the elements of the earth? Are not the genetics of our forefathers, passed down to them from their forefathers, passed down to them from the first mean scrap of an atom in some cosmic explosion at the dawn of time, the same thing as that very wind? She breaks through the surface and chunks of the earth began to come up in her hands. Chunks of black hard earth with pebbles and frayed gray arrows of dead roots molten against the frozen masses like specimens interred in amber. Is what comprises and what fuels the wind any different from that which comprises and fuels our cells? When the hole is deeper than her elbow she drops the shiny silver ring into the hole and refills it with dirt and returns up the rooster path to the house.

Inside her mother sits at champagne with her father and Arthur. They have loosened their belt buckles and crossed their ankles over their knees. They turn to regard the reentrance of the daughter, the bride: dirt smeared back across her darkened windburned cheek, her perennially coiffed plait of hair a bouquet of ruffled feathers, hot red blood soaking through - and in fact obscuring - the black earth writ upon her stiffened fingers.

I have decided to cancel the engagement, Becky says.

Song of the Day: Blackberry Stone by Laura Marling

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