Chapter One: Heaven and Earth In Jest
I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. But then some things are never simple. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. Or maybe it’s just holding me under.
Chapter Two: Seeing
Thomas Merton wrote, “There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” Thomas said quite a lot of things, none of them worth writing down. Then one afternoon he squeaked into a gap in the soil and unlocked. That was how he spent the afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon – he spent it. You can’t take the statues with you, itsy-bitsy or otherwise, and a pilgrim could go mad looking for Thomas. Which is why I’d always said it would take more than the pennies cast broadside by a generous hand throughout the world to get me to take on the job. It’s a mighty generous hand, the girl had said, and it holds an awful lot of pennies. Nickels, too, and dimes, if you know where to look for them. Thomas might have had something to say to that, but I didn’t.
Chapter Three: The Fixed
We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence. That’s all I had to go on, that and five dollars a day, plus I get reimbursed for streetcar tickets if I’m a good little girl and keep my receipts. I wake up thinking: What am I reading? What will I read next? I’m terrified that I’ll run out, that I’ll read through all there is to read, and be forced to learn wildflowers at last, to keep awake. I don’t want to know what the wildflowers have to say to me.
Chapter Four: The Moth Enters
“One night a moth flew into the candle I was reading by,” I said.
“A dangerous business, reading,” she agreed.
“This concerns you,” I said. “I’m giving you fair warning.”
“Don’t you ever think about treating me unfairly?” she asked. She crossed and uncrossed all six of her legs. “Just a little?”
Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs? Had she done her work? My thoughts ignited like tissue paper, like moving wings, until I shook my head and cleared them out. She clacked her mouth parts expectantly like pistol fire, and I leaned across the desk to light her cigarette. We both stared at the light on the end for a minute. Then she exhaled.
Chapter Five: Flood
I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood. But the police knew it was the cat, and they stopped sending little boys over to ask nosy questions before I’d had my coffee.
Chapter Six: Stalking
I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. It was hours before I came to again, and by that time I was alone – unless you count the hangover, which I never do.
Chapter Seven: Nightwatch
I sipped my coffee. I looked at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feelings save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It was ironic, maybe, that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator, our very self-consciousness, is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends.
“I didn’t know it was your birthday,” Effie said from behind the desk, which is how I realized I must have been talking to myself again. She sounded stricken – a secretary, through and through. No good secretary likes to think they’ve failed to guess something that could have been anticipated. I guess in that respect a good secretary and a good detective are a lot alike. We both think we can stay ahead of everybody else.
Yes, it felt like a birthday all right, and me coming in dead last in a game of Musical Chairs. The question was – who was lifting the needle on and off the record?
Chapter Eight: The Horns of the Altar
I am a sacrifice bound with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like live maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way. The worms can wait a while longer. They’ve got plenty of time.
Chapter Nine: Nothing
“All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring's center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish's tail.”
“Which means –”
“Yes, Effie darling. That was a fun game they had us playing for a while, wasn’t it? Looked like blood, smelled like blood – but put Nature under a microscope and she’ll squeal on you, every time.”
“Not every time,” came a voice from the doorway.
“Tom,” I said without looking up. “You remembered.”
“Happy birthday,” he said, placing an itsy-bitsy statue on my desk. There was a little bow on the head, too. When I heard the click I wondered briefly which of us had taken the safety off – him or me.
Chapter Ten: The Waters of Separation
At the end of the island I noticed a small green frog. He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump. At last I knelt on the island’s winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away… And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink. Nature is above all, profligate. Nature will try anything once.
She even, once, tried me.
The moth smoking a cigarette just kills me. They totally would if they could.
Yet again in your wisdom and prodigious literary knowledge crossed two swords I didn’t know could know each and yet now do. I’m laughing desperately and seeing Dillard with brand new eyes. Thanks.