This is not the story I wanted to tell.
But every story comes in different variations, and all are a little bit beyond your control. You think you’ve got a hold of it, a magic staff in your hand, but then it starts blossoming with lilies, or writhing into a snake, maybe sprouting legs and scurrying into some dark corner you were trying not to notice. You poke at the story, set traps for it, but it likes lurking in the darkness. Eventually you’re intrigued. You crawl in after it, lose yourself in shadows, and that’s when you realize: you never had any real control over the story. The story has been controlling you, all along.
I should have known that control is mostly an illusion. First, there was the situation with Red Vinyl Palace, which I didn’t realize was a bad idea until it was out of my hands, live, self-published, for sale online, under my own name even. Maybe some of the drugs I’d been on in recovery had messed with my head, because I hadn’t thought about the repercussions of writing a book like that until it was too late to take it back.
So work quickly became awkward, then intolerable. Maybe not everyone at the university was eyeing me with distaste, but a few certainly were. Al was keeping out of sight, so I was left to imagine what he’d do or say when we did meet—which was inevitable, at least as long as I kept my position, which I realized might not be for long.
Any gravitas I’d ever pretended to have was gone. When a student giggled in my classroom, or in passing, I couldn’t help but worry that they were thinking about some of the wilder passages I’d written. Were they wondering if I’d done those things myself, since the protagonist was so obviously my glammed-up double? Or were they—more likely—looking with pity at my drab middle-aged self, thinking, “Yeah, she wishes she had a coked-up cowboy hump her up against a poison ivy tree.”
I tried to remind myself that they probably weren’t thinking about me at all. Probably they had no idea I’d written a book, especially since it was hardly a blockbuster. But having written the story, put it out there, I’d changed things in my life in a way I hadn’t foreseen. There was no rewriting it.
That was when I started thinking about escape again.
The first time I’d escaped it had been in the other direction, away from the dingy Appalachian community in eastern Ohio where I’d lived for my whole childhood. I’d thought I was getting away forever from those roots, from the orange arsenic streams and the hills with their tops blown off, from the smell of coal in the winter, the heaps of derelict cars, the underfed dogs, the falling-down barns, the men with yellow teeth who didn’t even try to hide their racism. I thought I was getting away from the problems in my life and the mystery of who I was, the secret my mother had carried with her to her grave.
Leaving had meant giving up the good things too: Sycamore Hill, the gardens, the horses, the meadows, the sounds of geese winging over the weedy ponds. The silence. But, I figured, I could live without all that. I’d recreated myself as a woman who wore little black dresses, who loved opera and good restaurants. I could live without the old wildness.
But then, after the surgery and Al and Red Vinyl Palace, I found myself running again, this time back to where I’d started: just like my mother, after all the time I’d tried to be not-her, anything-but-her. Just another reality over which I had no control.
Speaking of stories with two versions, there was the mystery of my mother: I never could decide which version of her death was truer, my gentle grandfather saying she came home to give birth to you or my fierce grandmother saying she came home to die. Maybe both versions revealed more about my grandparents than they did about my mother (their wild, beautiful, doomed daughter).
I remember a conversation I had with my cousin Emily, when we were teenagers, after her parents had split up and Emily was basically living with us, since her mother was too busy with farm work to be maternal. Not that our grandmother Ruth’s tutelage was especially maternal either. She was trying to prepare us to survive in a hard world, but the way she did it made Emily uneasy. That particular day, Ruth had showed us how to put an injured pigeon out of its misery. A quick twist with her clever fingers, a delicate snap.
“I don’t want to know how to do that,” Emily told her, almost crying.
“It’s not about what you want to know, it’s what you need to know,” Ruth said.
Emily didn’t argue, but later she said to me, “I wish she’d stop with all that. It’s like she’s obsessed with death. It’s creepy.”
“It’s not creepy, it’s just reality. Sometimes euthanasia is unavoidable.”
“But she’s, like, weird about it. Like she really likes it. Sometimes I think it’s because she’s Jewish, some kind of inherited memory. The voices of the dead, calling to her.”
This sort of talk annoyed me, even then. The attempt of non-Jews to peg us. “That’s stupid. There are millions of Jews in the world. Even after they tried to kill us, over and over again, there are millions of Jews. Do you really think each and every one of us is obsessed with death?”
“Ruth is. And you are.”
“I’m not,” I said.
“Viola, when you were six, you were convinced you were dying of leprosy.”
I shrugged. “I had a white spot on my thumb. What was I supposed to think?”
“You did not have a white spot.”
“No, I really did. I think it was just fresh skin from under a scab, but it was there. And no one bothered to tell me leprosy isn’t an issue in Ohio.”
“See? Ruth ought to have told you. But she didn’t.”
I shrugged. “I never asked her.”
Still, maybe Emily had a point. Maybe Ruth and I really were obsessed with death. It wasn’t because we were Jewish, though. It was because of our dead mothers.
Being Jewish comes through the mother, which is why even with our shared ancestry I counted as Jewish and Emily didn’t. I liked that about Judaism, that honor to the women. And even if I wasn’t religious, I held to the Jewish feasts as constant factors in an uncertain world. The earliest poems I learned were prayers for the lighting of the Chanukah and Seder lights.
Jewish feasts gave me my first taste of drunkenness too. I was five years old, a round-faced child with streaky hair and flushed cheeks, reciting Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam, borei p’ri hagafen—Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine. Then I’d take a sip. And another. No one was watching, so I topped off my glass with Manischewitz and sipped some more, until I had unwittingly obeyed the Talmudic command: Rava said, A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.”
God, what a headache I had.
Incidentally, it doesn’t seem like most people need to drink in order to mix things up the way Rava describes.
Though my grandfather Jim participated in Ruth’s feasts, he didn’t believe in any god or afterlife. Once, shortly after their son Ben had disappeared, he said, “I don’t know why you keep praying. You can dress it up in poetry all you like, but talking to someone who isn’t there is what a crazy person does.”
“Just because He isn’t there doesn’t mean He doesn’t hear me,” Ruth said.
Did she mean it, or was she play-acting eccentricity? Sometimes I got the sense that they were sparring over belief as a performance for me, but this wasn’t one of those times. Jim spoke sadly and Ruth spoke sharply, and both sounded serious. Later I realized that the loss of their children had left them with strong feelings about God.
I had to sort out my own feelings about God too, when I was in my teens and Jim died in a car accident, driven off the road by a drunk driver. I had to ask the questions we all ask, the questions Job asked. Why do you do nothing, God? If you’re so all-powerful and good, why don’t you prevent a cell from mutating or stop a car from veering out of control? What the fuck are you even doing up there? Paring your fingernails, like Joyce said? Thanks for nothing.
No voice spoke to me through a thundercloud, no lightning flickered, and every possible answer I found just made me madder. It ended up being a cleaner solution not to get involved with God at all.
I guess all that arguing and pondering was what hooked me on philosophy, which was not something anyone did in my shabby rural county full of depressed coal miners and broke dairy farmers. It wasn’t even something they’d heard of.
There’s this trope about the bright kid in a backward area, the kid who knows she doesn’t fit in and wants more out of life. Imagine Belle in Beauty and The Beast, befuddling everyone with her love of books. That was me and Emily, though Emily had more of the beauty and I had more of the bookishness. Also, the hunters in Tecumseh County didn’t go around singing like Gaston but instead tore up the back hills on ATVs, throwing beer cans.
Emily never really escaped, but I did, or thought I did, which was why several decades after I had decided that God was a sham, I was lecturing up in Chicago, dragging through the end of that awful semester, teaching “Texts in Existentialism” to students who, if they weren’t thinking about the sordid details of my supposed sex life, as intimately described in Red Vinyl Palace, were obviously longing to be elsewhere.
Sometimes when entering the classroom I would hear a little voice buzzing in my head: It was a mistake. It was all a mistake. I wasn’t sure which part of my life the voice was talking about. It could be referring to so many.
I knew that when I came up for tenure review I was doomed, and not only because of my lackluster teaching. At least, I told myself, I’d have a fall-back career writing semi-pornographic satire—if Al didn’t sue me first.
I was thinking that as I talked about de Beauvoir, because by then I was so little invested in my work that I could worry about being sued by my ex-fiancé and lecture on feminism at the same time. There might be some irony in that.
“De Beauvoir is clearly the superior thinker,” I droned, “but you can see the line of similarity running through her thought and Sartre’s. If you take a look at your texts…”
Al won’t sue, I told myself, because then people really will think I wrote it about him. Right now, he can still pretend he knows nothing about it.
“I want to talk about the phenomenon of fear, and disgust. Nausea in Sartre is connected with revulsion at the female in The Second Sex. This will come up later, with Kristeva, in the idea of maternal abjection…”
Disgust. Al had definitely treated me with disgust, which was why there were some things I could never tell, some truths I had to keep to myself, even if it meant that everyone I worked with thought me a vindictive bitch. Well, maybe I was a vindictive bitch, but I had reason to be.
“This fear and disgust are associated with metaphysics, with the question of being, and therefore with origins. The Mother is an origin…”
This should have been hot stuff. But I was worrying about Al, and the students were ignoring me, smiling down into their crotches at their hidden phones, so that it looked as though they were rejoicing in their own genitalia, in no way disgusted by origins. A witty professor might have made a comment, but my teaching style had always been cramped by the unwelcome feeling that, as a woman, I was not supposed to be witty. Nor an expert. Nor even there. When I said a witty thing, I said it cautiously, so it didn’t work.
“The idea of the Other,” I began. Then my own phone rang. “Excuse me.”
It was Emily, who still refused to recognize me as a text-only person. I silenced it, but five minutes later it buzzed, then buzzed again.
I let the students go early. Emily had finally given up calling and texted: i can’t believe i called you six times and you didnt answer so now i have to tell you ruth is dead the funeral has to be soon, i guess maybe you can call me back?
Ruth was old, some might say, so why was I surprised? Perhaps I thought of her as I did the Jewish feasts, something to hold onto, to keep me from spinning off. In the back of my mind I’d had this idea that Ruth would always be there, back at Sycamore Hill, where the squalor of the mines and the depression couldn’t touch her.
I still didn’t call Emily, though. Since her marriage she’d changed, and I was afraid she might utter gross Christian platitudes. We arranged everything via texts. So, until I arrived back in Tecumseh County, all I knew about Ruth’s death was that she’d had a heart attack, it had been “sudden,” and Emily’s husband had found the body, in her garden.
The garden was fitting, at least. For Ruth, the life of her garden had been her own life, as central and rhythmic and deep as the rituals of the God who heard without existing. Perhaps gardening had helped her make peace with death early on, after her own mother died young, of cancer. Make peace with it, or fight it, or pretend it isn’t happening: those are your options. Of course, it’s not a fight you can win, so all respect to the ones like Ruth, the saints and mystics, even if they find their holiness down in the dirt, dabbling in decomposition, conjuring life out of the rot of old years.
Though she’d taught me to garden, I still hadn’t made peace with death. Maybe if death were more Byronic, an impetuous lover on a limestone horse, I could have made my truce, as Ruth had, but in my mind death was not Henry James’ “distinguished thing” but instead an irritating companion, who wastes your life with tedious paranoia: Have you checked your lymph nodes today? That streak on your nail, do you remember injuring it? Death, a bad smell beneath the armpits, a smell you hope no one notices.
I couldn’t help but imagine it happening Byronically for Ruth, though. Our matriarch, steel-gray hair piled atop her head, brown face ironically crinkled, crooking thin fingers around Death’s elbow, swinging up behind him on the limestone horse. I pictured their noiseless ascent up the green hill, into the circle of white sycamores where some ancient door would open to receive them.
Then a click, as one image gives way to another. A fall, some twitching, some garbled sounds, stillness. A slackening of the jaws, eyes open and unseeing. Drool. A fly settling on a glassy orb.
See, another story with two versions. If you catch me hunched over my keyboard late at night, puffy-eyed, jam-jar of wine by my side, and ask me what I’m writing, the only answer I know is that this is a story about stories. About the ones we tell to hide from the truth, and the ones we tell to cry out the truth. About searching for the story with just the right steel at its core, the hinge on which the other stories swing.
THE DIRT was inspired partially by my own experiences of working as an organic grower in coal and fracking country and of undergoing genetic testing for the “breast-cancer gene” that runs in my family. Beyond that, I was motivated to write a story about a woman for whom romantic relationships are less defining than her work and her connection with the land.
Philosophy teacher Viola Bard thinks she has escaped her dysfunctional family and her rural roots, but she can’t get away from the curses of her past. When genetic testing reveals the “Ashkenazi gene” that killed her mother, Viola Bard opts for a preventative double mastectomy—and is dumped by her fiancé. She tries to get revenge by writing and self-publishing an autobiographical novel that presents her ex in an unappealing light, but this (predictably) backfires, making her work situation intolerable. So when her eccentric grandmother dies and leaves her the family farm, Viola takes the opportunity to escape and start life over as an organic grower.
Returning to her roots, however, means facing the racism and prejudice of her neighbors, as well as the disturbing family mysteries that have haunted her life. And now her cousin’s husband, Kevin, the county’s most powerful landowner, has become bizarrely obsessed with Viola’s land. When the fracking boom begins, Kevin uses his connections with oil and gas companies to try to force her out. Then an unexpected encounter reveals to Viola the horrifying secret of her own origins. Once she has gotten over the shock of learning the truth about her mother, Viola realizes that she can use her new knowledge to blackmail Kevin—if she’s willing to destroy her own reputation and her last remaining relationships.
This novel could be categorized as somewhere on the cusp between neo-gothic and eco-feminist. It addresses themes of disability, ecology, hereditary curses, and archetypal taboos.
R. Bratten Weiss is a freelance academic and organic grower residing in rural Ohio. Her creative work has been published in numerous publications.
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020