History of the Drowned Cities— the Granddaughter Speaks:
We are all survivors of a personal Atlantis, all of us risen from the sunken continent of childhood. Even yet, I find myself inundated by remembrance, seduced by the drowned sound of bells still tolling from beneath the waves. Sometimes I return in dreams, the lifeless body of a child melting out of my arms as my face breaks the surface and I waken. The South is another sort of dream, suggestive and persistent, a country composed equally of the survivors of dreams and the drowned. After many years of terror and self-discipline, I allow myself to live just at the edge, in the hills overlooking the turquoise waters of art, memory and madness.
In the early part of the last century, after the Great War, shoals of Southern women migrated like baffled mermaids, washed up on the inhospitable shores of northern cities, refugees of a submerged civilization. From poverty or from ruined or imaginary riches they floated, trailing pearl necklaces of bubbles from their lips. Their softness, their quality of luminous helplessness failed, faded like the colors of a drying seashell. The arts and lessons that they had learned from their mothers, so carefully that they had forgotten their own deep natures in the learning, were useless or even fatal.
Some grew brittle and crumbled. Some became serpents, curling, concealing themselves in the cold unfamiliar leaves of this new place. Some, like my grandmother and her sisters, became madwomen, their hearts full of broken glass, shattered wind chimes from front porches far below the waters.
The Madwoman Tells Her Own Tale:
My sisters kissed me and hated me. I was the youngest of four, the only blonde and when we posed for our tintype photo, I was the one given a paper rose to hold. One day, I awoke to find myself playing at prince and princess with a steamship captain, posing for Brownie camera photographs under Florida palm trees, wearing a cloche hat, rolled-down stockings and a flapper’s hot jazz smile. My husband and I danced the Charleston in newly-confected Miami hotels which were all the pastel colors of a box of Jordan almonds flung along the seashore. Meanwhile, my sisters took turns clattering gray typewriter keys in Indianapolis, licking vile-tasting envelope flaps in St. Louis and caring for our dying father in a tiny, faded sepia river town, until they, too, became the color of mud and loathing.
Eventually, I returned, in a fanfare of hatboxes, with one whole steamer trunk full of nothing but multi-hued high heels. I wept so extravagantly at our father’s grave that my sisters, turned from me and walked all the way back home, covering their practical shoes with red Kentucky dust. I did not tell them that I was pregnant.
My husband never came to bring me back. The depredations of tertiary syphilis had begun to nibble at his mind with the minuscule teeth of imaginary rodents. The telegram I sent announcing the rending of our meat red child out of my body was still in his pocket when he walked into the warm, clinging arms of the ocean. I was not sorry to lose him to its embrace. I had come to loathe his touch and to detest its replication in the pink, clutching crab hands of his ceaselessly screaming infant.
I never described to my sisters, either, how under a mango-bright moon on our hotel balcony, my husband stood up suddenly, embracing me from behind. I never spoke of feeling the python supplication of insanity slithering beneath his linen sleeves, across my breasts, crushing me against the railing. His vertiginous whisper in my ear insisted that we fall like drowned stars together into the bay between the mermaid spittled ships. It is dreadful to be so defenselessly young and have the madness of another thrust against you.
The Madwoman’s Story As Told By Her Granddaughter
It is dreadful to grow up in the shadow of the madness of another. After her marriage was found on the beach, decayed and partly eaten by sea things, my grandmother never returned to Florida. She became increasingly benumbed and inadvertent, the reality of motherhood sliding through her hands like the vague silky fabric of the tea gowns which she ceaselessly unpacked and packed from stranded steamer trunks, until they rotted away in the humidity of Kentucky summers. She kept a few threads of her lost husband’s red-gold hair in a locket in the bottom of a shell covered jewelry box but she never spoke his name aloud. Everyone thought that her heart was shattered with grief but, in truth, the locket was merely forgotten, as was eventually, her husband’s name.
Her baby, my mother, was taken on as a martyrdom by a childless St. Louis sister who had a steady-working husband and a temper like jagged metal. Although she never actually went to church, my great aunt’s most passionate ambition was to become a famished and flagellated saint, hanging above the altar of her family’s enforced adoration. In reaction to her aunt’s daily Eucharist of resentment, my mother ate until she became a huge, soft heap of a young girl, trying to elude madness by total, passive stillness.
One day, in the depths of the Great Depression, her black haired, scapegrace uncle drove a busload of increasingly puzzled passengers out of the city and into the springtime countryside. Lacking panpipes, he blew them a tuneless scherzo on the bus horn and goat-footed it out of their lives forever. My great aunt, secretly delighted at being abandoned, went out to work in a candy shop, where she never put a single confection to her lips. Punctually, each Friday afternoon, she brought home an enormous, silk covered box of chocolates and watched with voluptuous contempt as my mother dutifully gorged on them.
My mother grew ever more massive, became an immobile mountain, a Buddha, a monument to her mother’s betrayal and her aunt’s sanctimonious rancor. The din of World War II roused her just enough to escape her aunt’s perpetually Lenten household by marrying my soldier father, however, she was immediately captured again by giving birth to my brothers and myself. My childhood was spent playing amidst the ruined cyclopean city that was my mother, between stupendous toppled goddesses decaying in the mossy forest of her somnolence.
Occasionally, my mother’s aunt would bustle into our food-encrusted, newspaper-matted den of a house and scour it all out with steel wool and fury. Then, still reeking of ammonia and contempt, she would yank me south to dutifully visit my grandmother, who was then considered only odd and broken hearted. She had not yet fully developed that Mentholatum and cooked root vegetable smell of old age, although she was already wearing her lipstick crooked and endlessly tying things up in little bundles with knotted-together pieces of string.
My grandmother alternately forgot and remembered me as I invented games in the patterns of the threadbare oriental carpets or read tales from decaying leather bound volumes in the dark parlor. Once, after days of seeming indifference, she awakened me in the thick, pink dawn of an already hot day and gave me breakfast on a tiny table set out in her ruin of a garden. We ate sliced oranges and cantaloupe from juicy, fly-sipped puddles between rose patterned teacups while yellow and brown butterflies settled on my grandmother’s hands as she lifted her arms toward the first rays of the sun. I was enchanted and repelled by her but I was not yet old enough to feel that she had any power over my future.
The Madwoman’s Cats and Correspondence
The madwoman’s cats are as sane as the multiplication table. They kill birds and carry their kittens around in their mouths. They walk past the scrap marble markers of the little cat graveyard at the bottom of the yard without any apparent hesitation or superstitious avoidance. When the madwoman steps out into her weed choked garden, the cats wind their gray or yellow bodies around her veined legs, on which she still wears silk stockings rolled down at the top, flapper fashion. They purr. She watches them climb on the ruined, waterless fountain and eat butterflies.
The madwoman is writing postcards which will be virtually unreadable by the people who receive them Her handwriting looks like a flock of birds taking off from a tangle of trees and like the trees, also. Her typewriter is broken, lost or sold.
She briefly considers using an interloping kitten as a fountain pen wiper but changes her mind and uses the sleeve of her flannel pajama jacket. The kitten goes to sleep on its back in her lap and she writes on and on, even after the postcards are gone, on the desk blotter. The people to whom she is writing now are all dead, but still she keeps scribbling, even after the ink is gone, even after the evening light has failed and the room has grown dark.
Two Meditations On the Nature of Madness
The granddaughter speaks: “Madness is revolting, is deadly, a matted heap of hair and bones in the alley corner of a fly-blown street. If I yield to madness, my life will become a broken shutter banging open and closed forever in the dry wind and bald light of an abandoned Sunday afternoon.
The intimation, the possibility of madness has driven me to and from husbands and therapists. My terror of madness is an amphibian with a soft cold belly, gray and broad as the sky. Madness itself is a reptile, sifting iridescent scales underneath the papers in a corner of my desk drawer, waiting with infinite patience and abstract malice.”
The madwoman speaks: “Madness is seductive, Byzantine and floral. My mind, since I have yielded to the embrace of madness, is a labyrinth made up of perfumes rather than shapes. I have come to live in a mansion of delusion, where the wallpaper blooms newly for me every morning with hibiscus and reveries. Every evening, I walk across the cold violets in the yard and the stars speak, although sometimes they shriek terrible things and curse at me.
Like any great luxury, madness is a form of discipline, an art requiring attention, dedication and constant forgiveness. The gorgeous, priestly robes I am required to wear in its presence were bought with celibacy, fervor and meticulous attention.”
The Granddaughter Regards Her Reflection In A Stained Oval Mirror
When I was fourteen, I began to listen for the pitch of my grandmother’s voice in my own. I knew that she had folded herself up inside me and that she waited, like a spider. When I became twenty, she began to ambush me out of mirrors. She floated, face up, in my dreams, still young, her lips moving silently just below the surface, her lovely nacreous fingers picking the moon’s reflection to bits.
I grew increasingly terrified, as what I had so passionately wished for came to pass: my typewriter filling pages magically, words curling up from my pain and solitude like smoke from burning paper. Imagine a little girl watching as her torpid mother, lolling in her filthy nest of a bed, tips a postcard toward the window light, squinting. “Your grandmother,” she murmurs, “Is the only human being I know who can actually type illegibly.” Later, as the other children scream and play Red Rover, the little girl sits under the lilac bushes with her secret notebook, examining her own penciled handwriting. “The only human being…” she whispers to herself.
As A Child, Shut Out of My Mother’s Dreaming, I Can Only Stand and Helplessly Watch As She Rouses Briefly and Occasionally From Her Stupor Into Art
Swimming toward consciousness, my mother’s first thoughts are: “Flowers that bark and snap. Cruel, vined plants growing through the windows of my great grandmother’s house and across the bedroom floor. A cold, waxy, white blossom presses up to my face, surprisingly heavy against my cheekbones, my eyelids. From within the center of the petals, minute teeth begin to nibble at my eye lashes.”
Without opening her eyes or raising her head, my mother fumbles on the nightstand beneath paper plates of stiffening food and a matted heap of old newspapers and magazines for a pen and paper. Her hand finds a notebook, no pen. She sits up and opens her eyes, bright, amazingly beautiful raisins in the immense dough of her face. Too late. The thought has gone. She whispers, “Flowers. Biting flowers,” and goes back to sleep, still sitting up.
The Madwoman Lies Dying
Her body has become trivial and ridiculous, only a husked, painful scrap, with ugly tubes running in and out of it. She has outlived her sisters’ envy and forgiveness. She has lived beyond even her daughter’s long, placid dissolution. The light of the rainy autumn evening, which she will not survive, is fading and starlings are massing in the trees outside the hospital, but she has already gone elsewhere and it is only her uninhabited mouth that cries “Mother” when they come with needles. In these final, racked hours, madness is the only proper and decent response to her body’s ultimate lapse, the encroachment of darkness and chaos.
The madwoman’s granddaughter has visited the hospital more days than not, enough that she has thought herself already on intimate terms with mortality, familiar with the transactions of mourning. Now, however, she walks out of the tiled corridors and into a vesper-time rain of unexpected grieving. Yellow leaves falling on the wet pavement make her think of drowned butterflies.
Years Later, the Granddaughter Reflects On How She Was Pulled From the Oily Waters of Obsession By the Small, Cool Hands of Children
I understand the power that the women of my family sought in solitude. Their lives narrowed to the exact width of their terror and became a repetitious litany of small, brittle rituals, intended to keep madness from sidling up and rubbing its greasy fur against their legs. When madness ran, baying under indifferent stars and woke them, in the deaf and panting darkness, its sulfur-yellow eyes burning at the foot of the bed, their dreaming was not a place for daughters.
Perhaps they saved me, as they had intended. Perhaps I freed myself. But, more likely, it was my children, who came, soft and heavy with perfection, and bloomlike blessed my wondering arms. I realized that the generative force I had sought in childlessness was merely an attempt to maintain a kind of impossible virginity. In that panicked, rigid holding of myself apart from the madness of my kinswomen, I nearly pushed away life itself.
I awaken, flat and milkless, standing in my own narrow garden, in a thinning aging woman’s body: a thing as sad and redundant as a fountain in the rain. From the blood profundity and trance of mothering, I must stand up, now, to go among streets and errands. No longer fearful of art or madness, I can open my eyes and begin to grow old. Hand in hand with continuing revelation, I will begin to walk into the endlessly mysterious and ordinary daylight.
The Madwoman, Dead, Gives Her Blessing To Her Granddaughter
In madness lay my only possibility of freedom, since my every attempt at freedom was labeled madness. My own green eyes look back at me from your face and I see that I was wrong and right and that it was all inevitable. I see you growing old and generous and quiet in the sort of weedy, rambling garden where, once, I felt the enormous, unavoidable earth’s rolling toward autumn and was sick with awe and terror. I would give you peace like water over stones, bearing away fallen yellow leaves, far and safely inland from the ocean’s mad self-replication, where the anguished, glassy cries of mermaids fading in the night drift to you and your dreaming daughters, indistinguishable from singing.