Thursday, November 25, 2010


From the pieces of stories that she touched as a child, like scraps of cloth stitched together to keep her warm at night, she began to craft a memory of her mother. Each day she would seek out new evidence of her, digging through drawers, leafing through the hundreds of volumes of books that collected dust on the shelves, such was her hunger to know the truth about the woman in whose body hers had formed for nine months. Who had she been, where had she come from, and why had she abandoned her life even before Grace herself had taken her first breath in this world?

This all happened not far from the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, near old Salt Creek and the playa lakes where buffalo once migrated, at a time when the landscape was already sectioned off into a tidy grid of cash crops, each a different color, like swatches of fabric. The tracks of travois and lodge poles had long been turned under by sodbusters, but the stories still hung on the air, bits of history tossed about on the wind, catching on cotton stalks and the hems of girls’ church dresses.

It is almost impossible to look out over the expanse of land (where the only vertical interruptions on a completely horizontal plane are the wooden electrical poles that flip by like a deck of crucifixes at sixty miles an hour) without musing on what it must have felt like to encounter such unending monotony on horseback, or in a covered wagon.

In the year that Grace was torn from the belly of her mother, the town of Blessing was nothing more than a small oasis in a sea of dust and corn. The Victorian courthouse in the center of town with its clock tower and pitched roof had already burned to the ground twice after being struck by lightning. It had been replaced in the 1950s with an industrial-looking concrete structure with bare slab walls, whose sole decoration was a series of large black and white photographs of the Dustbowl--entire farms being consumed by a cloud of thick sand as high as a thunderhead. She would often stand for hours in the dimly-lit halls of the courthouse, staring in wonder at the images behind the glass. The new courthouse stood in the shadow of the tall grain elevators blocks away on the edge of town, and was flanked by the drugstore, the Post Office, and the T.G. & Y. The bank and grocery store were less than a block away. By fall of 1970, the population was just reaching two thousand.

The tidy German farmhouse that her father’s parents had built at the turn of the century was still much the same, but had long-since fallen into disrepair. The paint had been sandblasted for decades by strong, unceasing winds, and the undulating sea of prairie grasses had overtaken the once-productive vegetable garden. The interior consisted of two bedrooms, a cellar, a parlor, a dining room, and two kitchens—the summer kitchen, attached to the main kitchen, was sparsely furnished with an iron stove on its backmost wall for use during the hottest days of the summer. The tiny house was a museum, whose interior landscape was roamed daily by the eyes and fingers of young Grace. Antiquated relics still lay atop bureaus and the dusty piano. There was a faded velvet sofa that crunched when you sat carefully upon it so as not to be speared by the occasionally-protruding horse hairs, wicker chairs whose seats had long ago collapsed, and hundreds of dusty books on sagging shelves whose pages flaked away between her prying fingers. None among these objects had been more lovingly caressed than the cast iron stereoscopic viewer perched atop a collapsing box of Keystone Company Polaroids from around the world--scenes of Amsterdam and Paris, the Taj Mahal and Canterbury Cathedral. The effort required to achieve the fleeting suspension of the parallel images into one, unified, three-dimensional view was a metaphor for the way in which Grace apprehended the multiple voices of history, and the delicious moment of the marriage of disparate things--dual images, whispers and silence, light and shadow, longing and hope--was delirious respite from the one-dimensional plane of singular focus.

The well house was one of Grace's favorite places. It was a small stone structure, rounded like a dove côte, but framed and screened on the top with a pitched roof. Even in summer the clear water that bubbled within the stone shelves nested beneath the surface was freezing cold. Gazing into the glassy water, she could just see the heavy earthen crocks that had once held butter and cream and milk, covered with thick cheesecloth whose edges once dipped back down into the water long ago.

Grace's father was a walking ghost in the world of the living. Years ago, he had banished himself to the cellar to emerge only at odd hours of the night. She often listened for his phantom shufflings in the bowels of the house. Although his hinged assortment of bones clothed in flesh resided predominantly in the cellar, his soul was to be found on the overburdened walnut shelves within the dog-eared pages of books onto which his fingers had pressed the indelible imprimatur of his longings. She often sought in these same pages the person she might have loved, the man she imagined that existed before she was born. Reinscribing the burning arcs of his vision over the beloved words, and through the traces of perspiration and oil that his fingers had left upon the pages of the heavy tomes, she daily redeemed him.

He father, however, beheld his growing daughter through an impenetrable mist of alcohol and would never know of her unceasing search for him in the forgotten books nor about her peculiar gift. His eyes would never linger upon her delicate hands, freckled arms, and shoulders, her white skin, to see himself reflected in the brilliant organization of her cells--he was afraid that he would encounter her mother in those eyes, and that the demons of her death would call forth with unflinching cinematic honesty the shattered bone, the blood.