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In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woodsby Matt Bell
Synopses & Reviews
Before our first encounter with the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.
In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house’s furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.
Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife’s first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.
The dirt's wettest season swelled, and then its hottest burst the world to bloom, and through those tumid months my wife swelled too, expanded in both belly and breast until the leaves fell—and afterward came no more growth, only some stalling of the flesh gathering within her. Even before it was obvious that there would be no baby, even then my wife began to cry, to sing sadder songs that dimmed our already-fuel-poor gas-lamps, or cracked cups and bowls behind cupboard doors.
I angered that we would have to start again, and if my wife was not to birth some son then I wished only for that pregnancy’s speedy end, so that she might not suffer overlong, so that another child might be put in this one’s place. But still her body delayed, pretending that the bundle inside her might grow into some child, and my wife pretended too, and when I could not stand her insistence I again went out back of the house to where my wife had planted a garden, some few tubers and herbs to supplement what fish I took daily from the lake.
Now in my frustration I returned that place to the dirt it had been, and later my wife confronted me with what I had done. Her anger flushed her face, and her yelling contained none of the music I loved in her singing voice, and as she exhausted her still-round shape of its rage then at last I saw her labor was upon us.
What sad and sorry shape was born from her after those next days, that labor made long despite the lack of life within:
Not an arm, but an arm bud. Not a leg, but a leg bud, a proto-knee.
Not a heart but a heart bulge.
Not an eye but an eye spot, half covered by a translucent lid, uselessly clear.
Not a baby, instead only this miscarriage, this finger’s length of intended and aborted future.
And what was not born: No proper umbilical cord snaked from mother to baby, from placenta to belly, and so the starved child passed from my wife’s body into a clot of blood and bedsheet, and then into my waiting hand, where I lifted it before my eyes to look upon its wronged shape, that first terminus of my want.
Then to my lips, as if for a single kiss, hello and goodbye.
Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even then I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: Into my body I partook what my wife’s had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole—its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to slide farther in without the use of teeth—and I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow.
What was there to say afterward, when my wife returned to her senses, when she asked to hold our dead child? What else to tell but that our child was gone: that while she screamed out her frustration I had taken the body to the lake, that I had set it to float away on waters safer than those red waves at drift within her body.
When her howls subsided, her voice was made different than ever before: There was still some baby inside her, she said, some better other that she might bring forth, and so she worried at the entrance to her womb, first with her fingers and then, later, with tools made for other tasks, until all the bedding was mucked with her. I tried to take these implements from her hands, but with increasing ferocity she shoved me back, with the balls of her freed fists, and with a song that staggered me from the bedside, her new voice climbing, hurling strange my name and the name we had meant for our child. In rising verses, she demanded I disappear, leave her, throw myself into the depths of the salt-soaked lake, cast my now-unwanted bones after the supposed casting of our stillbirth, that failure-son.
Drown yourself away, my wife sang, and then despite my want to stay I found myself again outside the house, for against the fury of her song my horror held neither strength nor will nor strategy.
Across the dirt, upon a dock I had built with my own hands, the
wind and the rain fell upon my face and the face of the lake, and
there I felt the first stirrings of the fingerling, as that swallowed
son would come to be called, by me and me alone:
A child or else the ghost of a child, clenched inside my chest,
swam inside my stomach, nestled inside my ear.
A minnow or a tadpole, a tapeworm or a leech.
A listener. A whisperer.
A voice, louder without vocal cords.
A voice: FATHER, FATHER, FATHER.
FATHER and FATHER and FATHER.
FATHER, FATHER, a title repeated over and over, until I began to believe: no longer merely a husband, but something more.
And yet I hid this new self, did not confess what I had done when later my wife limped outside, her slender fingers pressing a rag bloody between her impatient legs as she walked down the hill to where I stood sullen upon the dock, to where she opened her mouth to speak, then shut it in silence, then opened it again: a show of teeth, her hesitant tongue, the animal of her grief.
At last she made those shapes to move about the wording of her demand, asking that I take her out onto the lake, where she had never before wanted to go.
Take me where you took him, she said. And what else was there but to agree, to show her the place where my lie had drawn her thoughts, her sorrow’s desire.
The gray lake was motioned only momentarily by our presence upon its sluggish waters, its surface rippled with wind and dashed by my oars but headed always for another flatness, another deeper kind of floating quiet, stiller still, and there was our boat atop it as night fell, as the sky filled with moon and stars and the absence of nearer light. Only then did my wife stand in the rowboat, her movements sudden, unannounced. I worked to steady the boat and so did not grasp her intent when she began to sing, for the first time using her voice not to create or cast up shapes but to
take them down—and how could I have even hoped to stop such a power?
With song after song, with a song for each of their names, my wife lured some number of the stars one by one from out the sky, and those so named could not resist her call. Their lights dropped and crashed all around us, nearly upon us, and though they dimmed as they fell, still they landed too bright for our smaller world, and I shielded my face against the flash of their collisions, then covered my ears against the booming that followed. Those that slipped into the water splashed and steamed, and over the rocking edge of the boat I watched queasily as their hot lights dropped, until I lost them into the depths. Where they struck the dirt they did more damage, their fire scorching soil to sand to glass, and then in the growing darkness and the fading light the rain continued until the last fallen stars were extinguished.
Back onshore, I lifted my wife out of the boat’s flooding bottom and onto the dock, and how easy a burden she was then. I cradled her exhausted limpness, held her to my chest as I had hoped that night to hold a child, and in this way we climbed up the path from the lake, across the burned and muddy and darkened dirt, then into the false refuge of the house, where in those unlit rooms our new future awaited to tempt us into trying again: for the family we still hoped to make, the family for which my wife was again scraped ready, made to possess some hungry space, some hollow as full of want as my own hard gut had always been.
ON THE DAY OF OUR wedding, on some now-distant beach, my wife had sworn herself to me with ease and in faith, and I did likewise for her: Together we made the longest promises, vowed them tight, and it was so easy to do this then, to speak the provided words, when we did not know what other harder choices would necessarily follow as we made our first life together in a new city, and then again after we left that country and journeyed to the dirt, this plot stationed so far from the other side of the lake, from the mountains beyond the lake, on whose distant slopes we had once dwelled in the land of our parents, where perhaps there still perches that platform where we stood to speak our vows.
How terrible we must have seemed that day, when together we were made to believe our marriage would then and always be celebrated, by ceremony and by feasting, by the right applause of a hundred kith and kin. And then later how we were terrible again, upon this far lonelier shore, where when we came we came alone.
When we first arrived upon the dirt between the lake and the woods, then there was still sun and moon, only one moon, and stars too, all the intricacies of their intersections circumscribing the sky, their paths a tale to last every night, a waking dream to fill the hours of every day, and despite that bounty my wife was often flush with tears, because what world we had found was not enough for her, not enough for me, not without the children we desired, that I desired and that she desired for me, and despite her doubts she said that she would try, if that was what I assured her I wished.
In those days, there was no house, and until there was we required some place to sleep, to store the many objects we had been gifted at our wedding, the others we had carried forward from other years, those lived beneath the auspices of our mothers and fathers. And so we went into the woods to seek a cave, and in a cave we laid out our blankets and stacked our luggage, and there my wife waited amid that piled potential while each day I went out onto the dirt, while I raised a house with just my shovel and axe, my hammer and saw, my hands hardened by the same.
In that cave I did not leave her alone, though I had meant to do so—and all this happened long ago, when I still thought meaning to do something was the same as doing it—and I too was lonely as I built the house, and then the first rough shapes inside. I built the table and chairs, fashioned the stove and the sink, crafted the bed where I would lay my wife the first night I brought her across the threshold: where as I watched, the ink of her hair wrote one future after another across the pillows and sheets, and in that splay of black on white I smiled to see all the many possibilities of our family, formed out of her body, drawn into my arms.
But first another memory, the day before I carried my wife into our house, the other reason she was in my arms, the first time I spied the bear watching me from within its woods: And when I saw it I stilled my work upon the dirt, moved slowly to set down the tools with which I had not quite completed the house. At the tree line that marked the edge of the woods the giant bear’s back hackled, increased its size again, and the wedge of its head swayed huge and square from its massive shoulders, its mouth spilling yellowed teeth and lolling tongue, exhalations steaming the morning chill. In the face of its stare, I stared back, and the bear slavered in response, shook its thick fur as welcome or warning, and when it saw it had my attention it stood on its huge hind legs, its stamping body a dark tower opening, opening to push a roar up toward the heavens, toward the sun that in those days still ran full circle.
I froze, afraid the bear would charge, and in my fear I for a breath forgot my wife; and in the next breath I remembered, flushed with the shame of that forgetting.
The bear growled and raked the ground and paced the tree line. From my remove I noted the strangeness of its rankled movement and also how it was not exactly whole: where brown fur should have covered the expanse of its back, that fur was in places ripped, and the skin below was torn so that an armor of bone poked through the wound, yellowed and slickly wet. Still the bear seemed hardly to know its hurt, its movements easy, unslowed, perhaps untinged with pain. It roared, roared again, then abruptly it returned to the pathless woods, its bounding passage wide but somehow also impossible to track, the bear tearing no new way, breaking no brambles despite the bulk of its body.
And then I too was running into and through the woods by my own path, across the avenues of pine straw, back to where I had left her, the cave where all our possessions were stored.
I arrived to find our crates and cargo shattered upon the cave’s floor, our clothes shredded, our clock broken, our wedding albums ripped from their bindings. With the passing of those photos went some memories of the old world across the lake, a place perhaps already doomed to fade soon after our arrival in this new one, but now lost before I had erected the structures necessary to withstand that loss, and still some more terrible fear welled large within me, because despite my many cries my wife did not make herself known, and so for some time I did not know if she was alive or dead.
When I finally found her, sequestered in the entranceway of some lower passage of the cave I had never before seen, then as I shook her awake I saw there was no recognition in her dazed eyes, not of who I was to her or who she was to me. She did not know even the single syllable of her name, nor the two of mine, not until I repeated those sounds for her—and then I made her to say them back, to name me her husband, herself again my wife.
In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife's beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.
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