Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders

BOOK: Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders
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For the village:
Dave, Bill, Glenda, Nat, and Justin

“What happened to your mother then?” Daisy asked him.

“She aired her heart,” Weldon said. “It turned and consumed her.”

“And finally she was happy,” Daisy said.
 

—From
Brutal Angels
by Harriet Wolf

 

Harriet Wolf with the man presumed to be Eppitt Clapp
(date unknown).
Photograph courtesy of the Isley Wesler Estate

T
his is how the story goes: I was born dead—or so my mother was told.

According to the physician, good old Dr. Brumus, I didn’t cry. I wasn’t capable of even this innate reflex. I was mute and sallow and already a bleeder, one red bead poised at each nostril. Imagine my exhausted mother—the saint, Irish and Catholic—her legs sagging wide beneath the bloody sheet like two pale, bony wings.

The year was 1900. The world was taking a new shape: the Paris Exposition’s moving sidewalks, Freud’s
The Interpretation of Dreams,
and a tunnel being dug for the subway at Borough Hall, Manhattan. But in our house near the Chesapeake, not far from bustling Baltimore—with its canneries and foundries, its harbor of moaning steamboats, its tenements teeming with typhoid—there was little to do for either my mother or me, medically. Science had come only so far.

But given that Dr. Brumus—winded, permanently overwhelmed—had delivered three stillborn babies from my mother already, it seemed, for the moment, he’d finally won something.
He was always watchful, however, always squinting as if in bright sun, even at dusk, the hour I was born, mosquitoes whining past an ear. And Brumus knew, what with my bleeding nose and my pallid, lightly furred skin, that something wasn’t right. He wrapped me in a blanket—though the summer hung wet and steaming outside. Like an aging football captain, he shuttled me down the stairs to the porch, where my father, the banker, was pacing. Dr. Brumus presented me to my father and gave the news: “It isn’t fit.” I wasn’t a girl yet. I was still dangling before my father, midair, a lost pronoun, and it would take years before I would become a child in any real form in my father’s eyes.

“No, it isn’t fit,” my father agreed, perhaps expecting as much, given the three lost before me.

“It may only live long enough for her to get attached,” Dr. Brumus said, teary now.

“The baby’s mother isn’t fit either,” my father said. “Mary has those dark moods. You’ve seen them. She couldn’t withstand that kind of attachment and loss.”

Dr. Brumus tried to hand me to my father, whose face was poised above mine, his nose fat and squat, a boxy fender, though he was youngish and handsome in his taut pink skin and glossy hair. He didn’t like what he saw. “Take it with you,” he said.

Dr. Brumus oversaw the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children in Owings Mills, long before Baltimore started spilling into it with such ferocity. My father was betting that I wouldn’t make it—but what if I did? Was he asking Dr. Brumus to be my father, or at least my warden? The two men had known each other since they were boys.

“Jackie,” Dr. Brumus said, using the pet name normally reserved for times when he’d drunk a Scotch and soda and was looking slack and heavy-lidded. But that wasn’t his mood now. His eyes raced. “I can’t take the baby with me—”

“You said it’s going to die. You said so!” And my father became a little boy, his face plump and sweaty.

“Where’s the baby?” my mother called, her voice carrying from the open bedroom window above, her Irish accent heavier because she was too tired to fight it. She could have been calling to them from reeds, a marsh with a fog rolling in.

My father shook his head. “No,” he whispered to the doctor, fiercely.

And then my father marched upstairs, past the water stains on the wallpaper and into the bedroom. “No,” he said to his wife in a lilting voice of his own. Was he going to sing to her? “Darling, no.”

And so, for my mother, I was dead.

But still there was a baby. And this other baby with its dim pulse was bundled and taken away to start its other life at the Maryland School for Feeble Minded Children.

In just over a decade’s time, this child would become a supposed Girl Genius, and, more important, she would find Eppitt in the laundry and love him too much. (You don’t know Eppitt yet, dear ones, but you will.) And then this same child would make her way back here again—to this very porch, to her mother’s bed.

Some of us are born dead, some never really born at all, and others are born fresh every day—as if they’ve had new eyes stitched on overnight—which is the best way to live.

I hope you will understand eventually why I’ve denied all of this for so long. Are you reading this, my Eleanor? My Ruthie? My dear Tilton? Are your eyes catching on these words, fastening one to the next, aware of my life collecting on the page? Are you here with me?

I still desire the veil of fiction, the means to monkey and fidget with the details so I can convince myself that I’m writing about another baby, another mother, another life. If not that,
then I wish it were lovely. But what did I learn in writing out the lives of my characters Weldon and Daisy? You can’t have love without knowing sorrow; you can’t have miracles without desperation.

Here, then. My desperation.

M
y hospital room, which the nurses keep dimly lit like a child’s bedroom at night, is only semiprivate. I share it with Opal Harper, who, although suffering some form of dementia, seems to understand that my mother was Harriet Wolf, winner of
this
literary award and
that
genius grant—the Guggenpulitzheimer, as I’ve come to call it all. One thing I know for certain: a child of literary genius doesn’t care about “literary genius,” believe you me. And yet it dogs me. My vascular doctor has talked about his mother’s signed first edition. Two nurses have mentioned how interesting it must have been to be raised by a famous reclusive writer.

And now, for the fifth or sixth time, Opal Harper wants to discuss my mother’s works, despite the fact that one side of her face is rigid with paralysis. Amid the gentle beeping of the machinery and the burbling of nurses in the hall, she says, “Have I told you how much I love Daisy Brooks and Weldon Fells?” The strange grip of her half-paralyzed jaw compromises her consonants.

“Yes,” I say. “Many times.”

“But have I told you that I was such a lonely child?” she says. “I was raised by an elderly auntie who loved cats and books. The books saved me. I don’t care for cats.” Here she goes on to recount the childhood, which, I’ll give her, was bleak. She was raised outside Tulsa. She had to stuff her bra. Her auntie didn’t pick her nits and so, for a solid year, her head was infested with lice.

But as she talks, I sit in my bed replaying the little speech I have given the rabid Harriet Wolf fans over the years—die-hard readers, reporters, graduate students, professors, and the oddly wistful women of the Harriet Wolf Society—all of them rank with desperation.

It goes something like this: “Don’t you have
lives?
Don’t you have an issue with your
own
mother that needs working out? Don’t you have a terrible
marriage
to abandon? Don’t you have something,
anything,
to actually offer society at large? Go
do
something!”

I modify this slightly for the neighborhood children who come round while writing school reports, brazenly knocking on our front door.

But Opal Harper is unwell. If she died after such a speech, would I forgive myself?

She says, “Daisy and Weldon saved me! Daisy was so lonesome too. So unloved and yet I loved her for it. I wanted to be her.”

Sadly, I know what she means. It has occurred to me that Daisy Brooks, my mother’s heroine throughout her six novels, wouldn’t have let a man like my ex-husband, George, leave her. No, she’d have thrown herself into a lake and expected George to save her. And George would have saved Daisy Brooks, who’d have been drunk, of course, drunk with the wind playing over her wet, torn dress. They’d have fallen in love again while eating the flowers in the garden—the ones you can eat without dying—and, yet again, while trying to lure the evening bats by popping tennis balls up into the sky with their wooden rackets. Daisy would have convinced George to move all of the living room furniture out onto the back lawn, and there they would live, even in the rain and snow.

But those things only work in my mother’s books. I don’t like fictional stories. My mother ferreted through reality for parts to weld together to tell her untrue stories, which always struck me as careless and selfish.

Opal pulls back the curtain now, the metal hooks screeching along the rod, and I feel suddenly exposed, a frequent reaction since my heart attack, which unfortunately occurred in quasipublic. In fact, there was a crowd of neighbors on hand, staring on under the heat of the summer sun, as if they’d nothing better to do. And I was in a compromised position. Even my poor, dear Tilton saw it. She’s twenty-three but she’s still a child in many ways, what with her many conditions, and I fear the whole scene has scarred her! As a result of the incident, I crave privacy.

But I can’t reach the curtain to pull it back into place and, too, I’m now a little mesmerized by Opal’s face—her one stiffened cheek and its rosy shine of high blood pressure and a diabetic’s puffiness. She might have been a very ugly child. It’s hard to say.

“I started reading those books when I was twelve, which is too young,” Opal explains, “but I knew they’d be with me forever. And then I read them again at forty, and my, my!”

I myself read my mother’s books straight through during my fourteenth summer:
Tender Weeds, Let Go the Day, Brutal Angels, Klept of My Heart, Home for the Weary,
and
The Curator of Our Earthly Needs.
Some had been published by then but those that hadn’t been were in manuscript form, boxed up in my mother’s bedroom closet. I read them without her knowledge. My mother had sent out the first book in search of a publisher in 1947. All six were already finished by then. The storyline over the entire six novels is simple: Daisy and Weldon are young adventurers who fall in love with each other as children. They are separated by wars and disasters, by acts of God and calamities of the heart. When they finally reunite, they suffer. Book seven should have answered whether the entire series was a tragedy or a love story, whether humanity is basically good or doomed.

The series was unconventional, in fact unique, because my mother wrote it for an audience that could age as the characters did, as if Daisy and Weldon themselves were the intended readers of her books at every given age at which they were depicted. The genres also shift to best tell each portion. The first book is a children’s story with fairy tales and talking animals, but halfway through the next book, when Daisy and Weldon are moving into adolescence, the story becomes darker, more surreal. When Daisy and Weldon are teens, they exist in the apocalyptic novel
Brutal Angels,
a dystopian tale of a doomed society of corrupt adults. It moves to realism in the next book,
Klept of My Heart,
when they’re in their early twenties, but as they move into their thirties, time erodes and shifts; points of view meld. Modernism, or so I’ve been told. When Daisy and Weldon are middle-aged in
Home for the Weary
and advancing in years in
The Curator of Our Earthly Needs,
the magical childhood is as vivid as ever and the present is filled with absurdist twists. In fact, a writer shows up and the writer is named Harriet Wolf, of course! Harriet talks to Daisy and Weldon, sometimes asking them what they want from her. No one knew what to expect in the seventh book—not in content or genre. By the time they invented the term “postmodern,” her books were already classics. The books were published over the course of only a decade, but, ideally, someone could read each one now as her life progressed through each stage; I believe that’s how my mother meant for them to be read. Over the remaining years of her life, she was supposed to be completing the seventh and final book in the Wonder Series, as it was eventually called.

After I read the novels, I put them back into their boxes and never touched them again. I could appreciate that she had done something avant-garde, even if she had done it unwittingly, but the books themselves had too many characters willing to do anything for love, too much sadness and insanity. In one of the later books, Weldon is stuck outside a massive diving tank, his hand pressed to the glass while Daisy is trapped inside with a white horse swimming around her, and then her skirt unfurls slowly around her knees and becomes the glowing body of a jellyfish.

Plus, what did my mother know about life and love? She never even had a husband. She’d never even really been one to leave the house, for that matter, and she became a fairly devout shut-in during the winter of 1950, abandoning a tour for her second book,
Let Go the Day,
after a strange incident at a New York City book signing when she ran out into the snow and cried.

“What about the seventh book?” Opal asks, in an urgent whisper, her eyes glinting in the light of the machinery. “Do you really know where it is and just aren’t saying?”

I’m thinking,
Why have I been forced to share my mother this way?
Still, to this day, someone will see me around town and make a little reference to one of my mother’s books. “We’re all just driving in circles!” they might say. Or “If you’re living right, beauty overwhelms as much as grief.” More than once, I have flipped them the ever-loving bird.

If my mother had published the seventh book when it was scheduled, the series would be complete and take up its allotted space of dusty shelving in libraries, but without it, the mystery puffed up. As famous as she was, my mother is more famous for what she didn’t publish than for what she did. That irony chafes me since I believe she was quite capable of hatching this little plot just to prolong her reign. Even now, a dozen years after her death, I still have to share my mother with complete strangers!

“I don’t know where the book is,” I tell Opal.

“I see,” Opal says, defeated, and I’m reminded of my burden to bear: I deflate people.

The truth is that Harriet wrote the seventh book a dozen times. After I returned home to the family homestead—the house where my mother was born in an upstairs bedroom—with my two daughters in tow, shrunken by the reality of my charred marriage, I supplied my mother with paper, fresh ink for her typewriter, and matches. If I refused her matches, she said, she’d eat the pages. She wrote daily and burned each page into a small pile of ash that she then brushed into the wastebasket beside her desk.

A reporter for the
New York Times
was writing an article about the hundreds of stand-in seventh books written in homage to Wolf by various people, in particular those in the Harriet Wolf Society. The reporter presumed that my mother would have delighted in the idea. After our short telephone exchange, he wrote, “Wolf’s daughter, Eleanor Tarkington, who is known in scholarly literary circles as ‘the gatekeeper,’ has been historically cagey on her mother’s alleged final tome. ‘Who knows? Maybe it’ll surface one day,’ Tarkington said in a recent, rare interview.”

I think of myself this way:
historically cagey.

After my mother’s death, the historical society asked to install a plaque by the front door of our home. I gave in, perhaps because my mother’s death had weakened me—or maybe I was tired of deflating people. The plaque was bronze and handsome. In fact, it covered the aged drill marks from some previous plaque of sorts quite nicely. But before it could even form a green patina, I took it down. When members of the society came back years later to pay homage, I handed it to them in a box. Why announce my mother’s house—the possible burial ground of the seventh book—to crazies?

This year, the year of the new millennium, the society invited me to a special gala at their annual conference, celebrating “One Hundred Years of Harriet Wolf.” I despise the way they love my mother. Sometimes they nearly convince me that I’ve missed something magnetically lovable in her—something only visible from afar to strangers. A farsighted love.

But heaven knows I’m also thankful. My mother took me in with the girls after George abandoned us, and those books still produce royalty checks that keep us afloat—and I do surely squirrel money away.

“Bloomed,” Opal whispers softly now. “‘Doomed’ and ‘blessed’ equals ‘bloomed.’ How does that line go?”

She’s referring to a conversation in a canoe between Daisy and Weldon, a moment that so many people have considered the most important in my mother’s books. “I haven’t memorized the collected works of Harriet Wolf!” I say sharply. “I’ve had a life of my own to live!”

“Oh,” Opal says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No one ever
means to!
” I say, and then I shout, “Please close the curtain!”

And there’s her face again, a half-pining, half-pinched expression. Then her thick arm reaches out and gives the curtain a sharp yank, and she’s gone.

I close my eyes, feel the press of darkness—gravity pinning me tightly to the bed. The thrumming of machines is like small panting breaths. I can’t help but think of Tilton, so easily breathless. Is she alone in the house? Or has she made her way next door to Mrs. Gottleib’s? I do not trust Mrs.
Got
tleib, who promised years ago to help in times of need, but what choice do I have?

Tilton was a peaked little girl with fine white hair that wisped down over her ears. She is still a pale, wheezy-chested asthmatic who bruises easily and is prone to allergies, dizzy spells, shortsightedness, car sickness, and mysterious fevers. I prided myself on diagnosing her lactose intolerance before ever hearing the term. She’s so sensitive to the sun. I kept her coated in lotion as a child so that all summer she seemed to shine like she’d been freshly lacquered. I protected her from her food allergies—nuts, strawberries. She’s prone to hives. If she’s stung by an insect—not even a bee, mind you—her skin bloats around the bite and is tender to the touch. The mosquitoes love her. In addition to the lotion, I had to add bug-repellent spray—which gave her skin the feel of a thin, brittle exoskeleton. It got so it was easier to keep her on screened-in porches when she needed airing.

And then there’s her mind, a strange and distant world beyond anyone’s grasp. She isn’t interested in anything whole. The world is made of small parts of machinery—flowers, birds, toaster ovens.

Despite all of her weaknesses and needs—and, moreover, because of them—I love her mightily.

We all have our own weaknesses, needs, and tragedies, thank you very much, so Opal Harper can keep hers! I bear the stony tragedy of my childhood—the blank stare of fatherlessness. It wasn’t called a tragedy because my mother refused to talk about my father, who had to have existed at some point. And so I could never claim the tragedy for what it was.

I vowed not to let that silence happen to my own daughters. When our tragedy struck, I seized it. I turned it into a bedtime story, our sole bedtime story, one I’ve told so many times over the years that it’s taken on the feeling of something more marbled—its own monument. I told my daughters, “Human beings are shaped by tragedy and this one’s ours.”

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