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Authors: Molly Gloss

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BOOK: Wild Life
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Sat'y 25 Mar '05

The death of Jules Verne was reported in the morning papers—a great loss to France and to the world. When I read this news, I confess I was briefly startled into tears—just had to sit down and cry. Generally I am not much of a one for tears, and so my youngest son, named Jules for that very man, came and climbed on me, pulling at my hair and whining the way children will do, and dogs the same way, they'll climb on you and lick your eyes because they want things to go on being understandable, they don't want you to sit down suddenly in a kitchen chair crying.

I won't tolerate having my hair pulled, which my children know very well, so I stood up and tumbled my son right out of my lap. “Don't grab on my hair,” I said, and discovered, upon sitting down again, that I was already finished with crying. There followed a theatrical burst of sobbing from Jules where he lay on the floor at my feet, but as quickly done with—a long wet sigh—when I pulled him onto my knee. He settled his bony little spine against my bosom and began to twist a forelock of his own hair around his pointy finger while I held the newspaper out in front of us and read:

 

Death Relieves Jules Verne

Calmly Foresaw His End and Discussed It with His Family

 

He had suffered from cataracts and deafness and diabetes, this was something I knew. And seventy-seven. Well, it shouldn't have been a surprise; I don't suppose it was. But something about it was unexpected, a jolt. Indeed, he leaves large work, long years of glorious writing; and now is dead. The world is changing, he told us, and in my strong opinion Verne predicted very nearly every one of the major mechanical developments of this century; his ideas have obtained a
kind of technological immortality.
The world is changing but people go on dying in the usual ways,
is somewhere near what I was thinking, now that the prophet himself had arrived at the limits of personal mortality.

“Bird of six weeks kills her self with gas,” my son read solemnly. My children all are smart as whips, which I have written in these pages many times, but this last one an uncommon case: not yet five years old, but for more than a year he has been copying his letters from books and reading to me the captions of the daily newspaper.

I looked where he pointed. “Bride,” I said. “Bride of six weeks.”

“What's a bride?”

“A woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless behavior.”

This answer might have seemed sensible to him if he hadn't taken up from his older brothers a mistrust of anything I am likely to say about women. And my children are parlor artists, every one of them: he breathed out in a dramatical fashion and tipped his head backward against my breast, staring upward with the expectation of a revised reply.

“A woman newly married,” I said.

“What's married?”

“Enslaved to a man,” I told him truthfully. At four years of age he has no appreciation of scrupulous truthfulness nor understanding of irony, and withal has learned from his brothers to question anything I am likely to say about
men.
“Ma!” he said, in the particular way of all my children, exasperated and demanding.

I said into his turned-up face, “When a man and a woman decide to live as husband and wife, that's marriage. Like Otto and Edith.”

He considered the idea, studying upward with his eyes evidently fixed on the little dark caves of my nose; then he said seriously, “Like Jules and Charlotte.”

Well, boys are prone to confuse the mother with the wife; in fact, husbands are prone to this same thing. So I only said, “No, not like you and me. We are mother and son.”

I expected him to follow this line of questioning to its next natural point—to ask me if I had a husband, and who was he, which is related to, but not the same as,
Do I have a father, and where is he?
(heard and answered many times); but his mind does not work like
mine and shortly he had circled round again to another issue. “Why'd the bride kill herself with gas?”

With a child as young as Jules there is not much point in carrying scrupulous truthfulness to the edge of the abyss. “I don't know,” I said. “It may just be she was very, very sad.” Both of us considered this poor sad bride for a moment.
The world is changing but people go on dying in the usual ways.
Then I said, “Get up now, I have work. So do you. I want you to find the dog and a scissors and cut the hair away from his eyes, but not too short, and don't poke his face nor yours, and put the scissors away after.”

This was something he had attempted without instruction on two occasions in the recent past, for which reason I had hidden the scissors thoroughly and cautioned the dog against cooperation. But I had lately been wondering if Permission would cut the desirability right out of that particular adventure, and in any case Horace Stuband would be rowing Melba up the slough by this time, and it might be, if Jules went on searching out the scissors for a quarter of an hour, Melba would be standing in my kitchen tying on her apron and I'd be locked away in the shed when the matter came to a climax.

Jules popped out of my lap with a little shout and went off at a gallop, calling for the dog.

“Ma!” Frank said from the very air aloft. “Lightning's hid her kitties up here, Ma, there's a hidey-hole under the eave. Look!”

Someone has taught that cat to count, is my belief, for she has never failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide. For more than a week my children have been looking for Lightning's new litter in places as unlikely as sugar bowls, desk drawers, and rooftops.

“Where?” I called to Frank, and went out in the mud of the yard to see where he was pointing from his slippery toehold on the gable of the kitchen porch. “Oh my Lord, Frank. Can you see them? How many are in there?”

“She's in there with them. I ain't reaching in. It smells like puke and she'll bite a hole in me and I'll bleed to death.”

I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction, agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions, but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well, certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said, “Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them.”

“I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll be blind.”

Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed father unjustly blamed on me. “Well, then, come down from the roof and go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster will someday take over the earth.”

I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution, eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S. Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage their lives without subvention and stewardship.

As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.

“Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence; someone may have left them lying on the grass there.”

“I never did,” Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.

“Did too,” Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf, and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.

“I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly.”

I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief, though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty plates.

“Ma, I can't find Lewis.” Frank was breathless, roseate. “I think he's disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by Indians.”

“I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile.”

“Ma!”

“Go and ask any Indians you see skulking about whether they have seen your brother. Look in all the mine shafts and secret caves. Follow the blood trail. I'm serious, Frank. I want you to find Lewis and I want Lewis to put straight the woodpile.”

“Ma! He won't do it, Ma! He's out in the woods digging a bear trap and he says he won't come.”

“Go tell Lewis I'm giving his clothes to the orphans in Panama and his pocket-knife to Oscar. Tell Lewis, since he's got bear meat to eat, he surely won't be needing a place set for him at the supper table. And tell Lewis that Melba is in a fine temper; if she sees the woodpile like that, she'll box his ears off and he'll bleed to death.”

Frank's face brightened; he went off to deliver these warnings to Lewis. Oscar went off to claim Lewis's pocket-knife. Jules went off to look for scissors in the deep grass along the garden fence. I stood briefly in an empty room.

Just as Samuel Butler is said to have stopped everywhere and anywhere to write down his notes, it is my habit to snatch up every moment of quiet and solitariness for myself, to sit right down in these circumstances and turn out a few lines, a paragraph of deathless prose, while none of my children are underfoot: I keep a little notebook in the pocket of every apron and wrapper for just such momentary occasions. But I expected Melba; and I am as liable to be governed by my housekeeper as any woman. I went on scraping the plates bitterly and carried the pail out to Buster, who has taken up the prudent doggy habit of hiding under the floor of the toolshed whenever summoned by a child below a certain age.

The shores of the Columbia River at this lower end are crowded with small and flat islands divided from one another by the narrow slackwater of the sloughs—that is to say, by the river's back alleys as it finds its slow way round and among the islands. Price Island and Tenasillahe are so low lying as to be barely suitable for fish-seining sites, but this island (having no name, and therefore just the Island) is a great wedge of rolling pastureland and arable fields, as well as woodlots of black cottonwood and red alder, engirt by the Steamboat, Alger, and Ellison Sloughs. I should be surprised if the highest hillock on the Island stands ten feet above the flood tide of an average spring freshet, for which reason this house and several of its outbuildings perch upon high stone piers in the hope (usually vain) of getting
through our periodic out-of-the-ordinary tides with merely draggled skirts.

When Buster scooted out for the pail of scraps, I peered into the great muddy vacancy beneath the shed and called, “George,” for my oldest sat in the dim dampness there, with his back reclined to the rocks of a corner pier and his head not visible to me unless I bothered to circle around to another corner and lean in. He said, “What,” in a flat and sullen way as if it were a reply.

“What are you doing under there? Reading a book? Consulting the stars?”

George, having the advantage of years, has long since reached an understanding of irony, but continues without any appreciation for it. “Ma,” he said, from the very mountaintop of Impatience, “will you leave me be.”

BOOK: Wild Life
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