Brian Kiteley >

from The River Gods


Calvin Coolidge

The ringing startles me out of sleep—the persistent ringing—and then a woman's voice (from beyond the grave). I lift the coffin and listen, the smooth black receiver cradled in my trembling hand. "Mr. President, Mr. President," I hear eventually. My rocking chair stops rocking. I glance up Massassoit Street toward Elm Street, and out of the corner of my eye I note the gardener trembling. He has a fine persistent tremble, chin, hands, shoulders, but it does not interfere with his lovely work. "You were having a bad dream, sir?" he says. I nod, neck still tingling, my whole left side tingling and numb, for that matter. Mother's voice rings in my mind, but also her smell-neither present to my senses for fifty years-like a box of used souls. I see a young man edging his way down the street. Many drive or walk by the house since we returned from Washington. Mrs. Coolidge urges me to sell the duplex and move somewhere more private and fitting for an ex-President. I demur. The young man's face is vaguely familiar. He finds the courage to walk past my porch. He stops. He speaks. "I was a boy, standing at the fence outside the White House, Mr President. Your friend, a Colonel, saw me and brought me in to meet you. I could not find the voice to talk, but the Colonel spoke for me, telling you how sorry I was that you'd lost your son. It moved me to see the President cry." Calvin Coolidge, Jr. developed a blister after playing tennis on the White House courts. The blister became infected and he died of septicemia in Walter Reed Hospital, July 7, 1924. Mrs. Coolidge died many years after I did, but I noted that she did so just a few hours after the 32nd anniversary of Calvin Coolidge, Jr.'s death.



The Sage of Mineral Hill

In society you will not find health, but in nature. Unless our feet at least stand in the midst of nature, all our faces will be pale and livid. Society is always diseased, and the best is the most so. I built two cabins by hand, one on the upper reach of the Connecticut River just before Hatfield, the other on the highest point of land in Northampton township, on Mineral Hill. There is no scent in nature so wholesome as that of the pines, nor any fragrance so penetrating and restorative as the life-everlasting in high pastures. I would keep some book of natural history always by me as a sort of elixir, the reading of which should restore the tone of the system. The river cabin appeals to me in May, when the waters threaten to take it downstream and me with it, and in October, the most placid time of year. To the sick, indeed, nature is sick, but to the well, a fountain of health. To him who contemplates a trait of natural beauty no harm nor disappointment can come. The spruce, the hemlock, and the pine will not countenance despair. The hill cabin calls me mid-winter, for bracing encounters with wind, ice, sleet, and only occasionally snow. I also hie there in August, to escape the heat. Methinks some creeds in vestries and churches do forget the hunter wrapped in furs by the Great Slave Lake, and that the Esquimaux sledges are drawn by dogs in the twilight of the northern night to follow the seal and walrus on the ice. Sick and diseased imaginations toll the world's knell too soon. Cannot these sedentary sects do better than prepare the shrouds and write the epitaphs of those other busy living men? Northampton below from Mineral Hill is as remote as the Northwest Passage. We live on what we find, the dog and me-service berries in June, tart strawberries, carrots that taste of metal. What is any man's discourse to me, if I am not sensible of something in it as steady and cheery as the creak of crickets? In it the woods must be relieved against the sky. Men tire me when I am not constantly greeted and refreshed as by the flux of sparkling streams. Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the luster of whose scales worn bright by the attrition is reflected upon the bank.

I have seen it suggested somewhere that the crow was brought to this country by the white man; but I shall as soon believe that the white man planted these pines and hemlocks. He is no spaniel to follow our steps; but rather he flits about the clearings like the dusky spirit of the Indian, reminding me of Philip and Powhatan, not Winthrop and Smith. He is a relic of the dark ages. By just so slight, by just so lasting a tenure does superstition hold the world ever; there is the rook in England, and the crow in New England.

The fishes commonly taken in our ponds are pickerel, suckers, perch, eels, pouts, breams, and shiners. In April, the snapping turtle, Emysaurus serpentina, is frequently taken on the meadows and in the river. The fisherman, taking sight over the calm surface, discovers its snout projecting above the water, at the distance of many rods, and easily secures his prey because it prefers not to disturb the water by swimming hastily away. Gradually drawing its head under, it remains resting on some limb or clump of grass. Its eggs, which are buried at a distance from the water, in some soft place, as a pigeon bed, are frequently devoured by the skunk. It will catch fish by daylight, as a toad catches flies, and is said to emit a transparent fluid from its mouth to attract them. Its grip is deathless. Two boys stole a swim in my pond one hot May forenoon, and I heard one cry out in terrible pain shortly after. A snapping turtle had taken a hold of his wrist, biting clear to the bone. The other boy chopped the head off at the long neck with a rude axe he'd brought along with him. To my anger, he said he'd thrown the body into the pond's deep—it is excellent meat! The dead head and jaw of the beast would not give up the fight. I brought a thin saw from the cabin that I use for saplings to make arrows. The saw ruined itself on this task—cutting through the jaw bone—but the boy was grateful if faint. I wrapped his wrist in birch bark, which I keep soft, soaking a quantity in a quiet inlet of the pond. His left hand would not be long for this world. I asked if he was dexterous or sinister, and his friend replied the latter, a well-educated trespasser. With pity for the soon-to-be lack-handed lefthander, I escorted the two of them to town. My house and family are on Massasoit Street, but I did not wish to frighten them-they find my wild looks after these sojourns trouble enough. Doctor Williams, on Elm Street, took the boy in, sent a son running off to the parents, did the amputation quickly, with whisky all around. Forgive a man his philosophies, even if they fly in the face of a civilized boy's whole parts.



A Soul Departing

Jonathan Edwards rose between four and five each morning, and he spent thirteen hours a day in study. His usual diversion was riding horseback, and he decided before leaving home what should be the subject of his thought. He would pin a piece of paper to his coat and charge his mind to associate what he had written on the paper. He repeated the process with a second paper and a second train of thought, sometimes returning from his ride with many such papers. After the ride, he took the papers from his coat in regular order, and he wrote down the line of thought and the conclusion that each had suggested. Absorbed in meditation, he was usually oblivious of all else around him. This day, with many papers attached to his summer coat pertaining to a recent unorganized awakening in the Valley, he came upon a naked white woman on the trail to Hatfield, adjacent to the Connecticut River. Edwards did not recognize her from any of the nearby congregations. She had one hand buried in the orifice out of which children were birthed. She screamed violently, especially when he touched ground near her. Edwards saw from her bright red belly that she was in some kind of devilish labor, the end of which would be death, not a child. He pulled her hand out, bloody. He held this red hand against his white shirt and for a moment her screams abated. A beatific look loosened her facial muscles. She spoke a word, "Clean," which the Pastor had to agree with. Then her stomach clenched, and in a terrible spasm a purple monstrosity fell from her belly. It seemed, for a moment, alive. The Pastor discerned eyes—not two but three, many fingers more than ten, a sort of head, but no torso, no legs, no mouth or nose. The thing momentarily held a shape but soon dissolved on the pine needles. Jonathan Edwards held the girl's hand firmly, although he felt his own legs and bowels twitch in an awful way. He soiled himself, and sobs rose out of his lungs. The girl said, "Touch me, God almighty, touch me." Edwards knew not how to interpret these words, but his other hand reached involuntarily for her belly, still ruby red but slack now, and he rubbed it. She sighed so loudly that nearby leaves moved as if from a breeze. This was her soul departing. Her head fell backwards, and black bile spilled out of her sweet mouth. Jonathan Edwards stood up with the girl in his arms, gently lay her across his horse's saddle, and walked with them back to town. He pulled the papers from his coat and put them in his pocket. He did not want to remember what he had set his mind to consider this day. Another set of images had impressed themselves on his soul.


Fiction as Mixed Media


These three brief sections of The River Gods, a novel I've been working on for eight years, are representative of a certain style of composition. The book is a history of Northampton, Massachusetts, told backwards, from the 1990s to well before its settlement by Europeans. I grew up in Northampton, but I haven't lived there for almost 20 years, so I've been recollecting the town at a great distance, both temporal and physical. The book has caused me to create new sections, stories, and parts in a variety of ways, but the method I used in these pieces (they vary, but they follow a common path) is my favorite. I heard Harry Mathews read a story at the University of Denver five years ago. The story, "Dear Mother," recently collected in the volume The Human Country, begins with a few lines from a prose poem by the great American surrealist James Tate. It ends with some lines from a letter the nineteenth century poet William Cullen Bryant wrote to his mother. The first part of the story concerns a businessman spying-somewhat perversely-on a deaf girl in a field. He has to lie down in the tall grass to escape notice (or he thinks he will escape notice). The last sentences are common, though moving, sentiments a literate man of that era would send to his mother. One cannot imagine how Mathews thought he could bridge these two fragments of prose, but he does, with great glee and grace. The prose between the two sections of alien prose is transformed by what precedes and follows it. There is no way Harry Mathews cannot have been affected by the high-wire act of making these two distinct sensibilities fit together, and the prose between the other writers' words shows the thrill and joy of this sort of composition.

I attempt something similar in these three pieces. They are not strictly speaking "bridge" exercises, which is what I call Harry Mathew's story. I wrote this first piece as a postcard story. I write a good deal of my fiction on those stamped post-office postcards that are blank on one side. I can fit a lot onto that space, usually about 300 words. The first two sentences at the beginning of the story are from a book, The Tales of Horror, by a good friend of mine, Laura Mullen. I also sent this postcard story to Laura, with no explanation other than the story itself. She recognized the language from her own work, applied to a very different set of problems than she was working with in The Tales of Horror. I am usually acutely aware of whom I'm addressing a postcard story to (I like to let the addressee affect the subject matter-for example, I send a story to a friend who has great expertise in one area, mimicking that expertise myself, to see if I'm capable of doing it), but I don't know that I've ever used the published words of an addressee. The effect of this language on me, along with the idea of addressing Laura, combined to create a ghostly echo in the story. I did not expect a Calvin Coolidge story to work that way, while composing it. Coolidge was mayor of Northampton in the early 1900s. He was, up to that point in the novel, largely a comic figure. This story, with the pressure of Laura's ghost story language, changed him subtly for me into a somewhat more sympathetic figure, about to be struck down by a stroke.

For the second piece, I copied an essay of Henry David Thoreau off the Project Gutenberg website, which has hundreds of public-domain works of great and not-so-great literature and philosophy. I am not sure what I had in mind with this essay of Thoreau's on the natural history of New England. I think I wanted to tinker with his prose, to see what would happen if I took some of the writing of this well-known nineteenth century stylist and twisted it slightly, adding my own sentences here and there. I did, though the project languished for some time in a backwater file, never making into the larger file on my computer, "Rivgods.doc." I would open the file (which I called "Thoreauvian.doc") every once in a while, play around with it, adding a new sentence here and there, but it never satisfied me. At one point, I decided I did not need to treat Thoreau's prose with kid gloves, and I began editing it, as well as adding my own alien sentences, more or less between every one of Thoreau's sentences. I liked the interplay between Thoreau and the character I was creating who spoke with some of his lofty, florid sensibilities. It is peculiar and a little transgressive to take almost holy prose, like Thoreau's, and play with it, but I wanted this book to be more than just historical recreation, more than an accurate retelling of the past.

The last story works much as the first one did, but with a much more biographically accurate piece of prose as its anchor. I was reading an essay in a book of essays on the 300th anniversary of Northampton, published by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1954. The prose in these essays was uniformly good, but this one paragraph on Jonathan Edwards' work habits just stunned me. I wrote down the few lines that open the story on a postcard, then wrote my own reaction to these fascinating details about the great minister and theologian whose church I went to as a child. I sent the story to my friend, the writer Rikki Ducornet. Rikki has no trouble calling me on weak or unsubtle prose. She did just that, complaining about the DAR prose, not my prose. I was relieved she found the other, alien prose awkward, but I was also defensive on its behalf. I resisted doing anything to improve the language, but eventually I did, without losing Edwards' eerie intensity.

These three pieces of prose are historical, part of a novel that tries to capture something of the essence of a town over time that has been settled since 1654, and which Native Americans also called home for several hundred years before that. The fact that I am writing historical fiction has always intimidated me. I decided early on to give in and use some of the history itself either as direct inspiration or as a shadow thrown against the prose I am trying to compose. My colleague at the University of Denver, Jan Gorak, has wondered if I've stumbled onto a crisis between history as research or lumber and history as meaning or novel. He thinks writers of historical fiction are now between times rather than above time. I like this concept. I believe in using the words of the past and inserting fictions—or like-minded prose—between them to create another version of both past and present, not necessarily interpretation of past, but illumination of the passage of time with language as its fuel.