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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Melt, you snows, melt!

Nor'easters dumping feet of snow, multiple family ER visits, care for the laid-up, busyness to the Nth power: it has been a monster of a Lent so far. In lieu of a proper post, here's a snip from Glimmerglass, a story about the rebirth of a woman in mid-life, Cynthia Sorrel, who thinks of herself as a failed painter, and set in a version of that semi-mythical village, Cooperstown. Ghosts! Faux European castles! Confusion between the real world and the fictional realm invented by James Fenimore Cooper! Etcetera. I picked a bit of a flood scene, since I am longing for our feet of snow to melt and leave me with no car-clearing, no shoveling...

And here's a little snip from a review by Tom Atherton that mentions the flood: "On the surface it’s a real-world drama about a woman’s later-life discovery of adventure, love, ambition, and artistry. In light of its concerns for both coming-of-age and the real rubbing against the magical, it’s fitting that much of the work is given over to images of thresholds being crossed, of locked doors being opened, and of rivers overflowing their banks. And while it’s a literary-critical truism to remark that the source material of many fairytales is much darker than their popular Disney-fied incarnations, Glimmerglass really is an adult fantasy, not in the sense that it’s violent and sexual (though this is an aspect of the text), but in its emotional complexities, and its themes of loss and redemption. It’s brilliantly well-written, shockingly raw, and transportingly—sometimes confusingly (but not in a bad way)—weird." (For more review clips, go here.)
     The art--dragon study, inner illuminations, and jacket images and lettering--is by the marvelous, bookish painter-and-more, Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales. Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt of Burt and Burt of Atlanta. Published by Mercer University Press.

Mid-way in chapter 8, "The Spring Freshet"

       The creek surged above the bank—the boy was gone—and she flashed away, her feet sliding on patches of ice, past the cottage with its seven doors thrown wide, past the firs, and through the
gateway with its stone pedestals for ironwork arch and griffins.  A wave tangled with her feet, slammed her to the ground.  She picked herself up and raced on in deepening water; gaining the lake road, she jogged on a glaze of muddy liquid until she came to dry pavement.
       There she panted, hands on muddy knees, and surveyed the invasion of her domain.  The stream had flown through the cottage and out the other side, making a shallow lake of the lawn.  For an instant she saw the flooded grounds as magical—the reflective surface gleaming like a jewel, the cottage like a moated castle.
“All my things,” she whispered.
Though the high waters were already subsiding and draining out the doors, many of her pictures and the upholstered furniture might be ruined, even from such a brief soaking.  Had the tide overthrown her tables, broken what was breakable?  She dreaded the thought, recalling that when she had moved here, the chance of flood hadn’t seemed like such a risk.  Less than a year ago, loss had been nothing to her.  Just stuff, she thought, giving a one-sided smile.  Such a quick, fierce dousing wouldn’t ruin everything, surely.  Old photographs, family possessions:  those she couldn’t replace.
       Cynthia squatted at the edge, watching, until she remembered the painting of the boy and sprang up.  She dashed off, heels kicking up spray, slowing as she reached the lake around the house.  Chunks of ice, twigs, and leaf litter bobbled on the surface, and last year’s flattened grass shone green through the meltwater.  Cold lapped against her legs.
        Once a pair of small red dragons made her pause:  salamanders from the cellar!  Having struck the safety of a tree, they now groped upward and, like two drenched flames, sank into fissures of bark.
Inside, the flood was everywhere, though already the depth had sunk to only five or six inches.  The line of the watermark showed that the tide hurled through the open doors must have crested at about three feet.  She told herself that it could have been much worse, that perhaps it was best that the doors had been free to let the flood in and out again.  She slopped down the hall, rescuing a gilt-framed photograph, a set of overturned nesting tables, and a doll-sized dresser that had belonged to her mother.  When she reached the studio, she realized that it had taken the full force of the surge.  Drawings together with miniver, sable, and bristle brushes floated on foot-deep water.  Collecting her flotsam, she dumped it onto a worktable.  The old map chests full of sketches were safe, but anything half-finished had been torn away, the paints pitched out the door and scattered.  Her hand, blind in the murk, closed on a tube of Caput Mortum.  
The painting!  She hadn’t even dreamed that it might have vanished.  Water damage she could deal with, but not total loss.  She waded along the north side of the house, scanning the shadows for a patch of canvas.  It could be anywhere between the walls and the shore—it could even be in the lake, she realized, and perhaps, if face down, could fill with water and sink.
“I’ll swim if I have to,” she said, head bent, as if warning the opaque waters.
She skittered through the yard, twice stumbling to her knees but pushing off again.  Discolored where
the creek had tumbled its cargo, Glimmerglass was sprinkled with uprooted saplings, dead leaves,
and a lone pink plastic frisbee.  But nothing like a picture floated on the waves.  Sticks and stones clogged the mouth of the stream; with unslakable invention, the water continued to murmur its story and found fresh paths into the lake.
“The only thing I ever did that was any good!”
She crawled onto a heap of debris, peering through gaps, and began to work her way up the heavily pouring creek, poking into the depths with a stick.  Nothing.  Not until she came within a hundred yards of the house did she glimpse the oval of the boy’s face in a deep pool.  A mass of wood had forced much of the pell-mell plummet into a nearby channel, although innumerable fingerlets of water felt their way between and over logs.
The banks had been sheared away, so Cynthia climbed downward until she couldn’t find footing and abruptly sat, digging her nails into the muck for purchase until the steep wall collapsed, and she smashed sideways into meltwater.
Bubbles shot from her mouth as a branch raked her side.  She surfaced, choking and splashing, with clay squeezed in her fists.  Something about the clay, soft as raw hanks of flesh in her hands, made the thought of her own death come home to her.  Fright was in her like iron left to frost in the woods, with the nightmare of being overrun by a tumult of wood and water.  Blood made a jagged path down her ribs.  Cold tightened its grip until she gasped.
But she wouldn’t climb up; she wouldn’t crawl back home in fear.  She would claim the boy.
Gingerly she extended her legs, pedaling until her feet found an uneasy perch on the creek bed, and reached for the boy.  With a jerk, the canvas escaped from the grip of mud, though it didn’t float to the top as she had expected.  
Millais’ painting of the drowned Ophelia came into Cynthia’s mind as she looked at the boy’s heartbreaking, beautiful face and at the white hands glowing under water that was spring clear in places but deepened to mud and blackened emerald in others.  Strands of dissolved loam swirled across his chest.  She plunged her arms into ice cold and grappled with the canvas, struggling against earth and roots and the weight of water.  An answer to a question she hadn’t known to ask, memory and desire rose in her like a fountain and then a flood that ravished:  the boy’s backward glance from the hill; the receding shape, half-hidden in trees; Andrew, leaning with his hand on the hill door at Sea House or standing close to the juncture where stone walls yielded to the demand of earth; the sighting of the three beavers, who had perhaps just that day abandoned their dam and gone searching for a new home; Teddy, arm out, gesturing toward the last floes of ice on the lake; Hale, declaring mystery, Lydia in her hat; and even Iz, like a splinter-faced fire demon wrapped in a cocoon of smoke.
If there were tears, they were hidden by the force of spray; if there was regret, it slid away in the spill of pictures.
Mystery.  Something I’m meant to do.  Something remaining.  Enduring. 

Updated: my Catherwood page...


  1. Shades of The Mill on the Floss and of The Red and the Black (but there Sorrel lacked an r). The drawings are obviously complementary, two forces of imagination given free rein. I know you've mentioned Clive before, I envy the trust that must have developed. My attempts at harnessing artists seem doomed to failure, my fault inevitably. "Harnessing" is clearly the wrong word.

    Older works of fiction often had chapter heading illustrations but these were not joint projects based on imagination. The images were picked from a random boxful owned by the printer and the links between text and pic were frequently comically strained. A man in a pith helmet staring into the middle distance, yet the story was based in Canada.

    Who'd quibble at a pith helmet? Well I would, for one. I was young then but I must have sensed that there wouldn't be suitable images in that box when I started to write fiction. Who'd bother with with piles of swarf, printed circuit boards, engineering drawings and site cranes?

    Just maundering through.

  2. Glad you did--sorry I am a bit stretched at the moment!

    I too would quibble... It is wonderful to have someone who loves to play with my books and make art that is inspired by my words but not bound by them.

    Yes, the whole story with Clive is just magic. I do have other painter friends, but Clive was someone I had not even met when we fell into collaboration. It all started with a mention of him on my blog--then he saw it and read the entire blog (madman!) and for the year after we were intense epistolary friends. We are very different in many ways yet have the sense of being kindred.

  3. E.R. visits? Yikes! Hope y'all are healthy and warm up there.

    1. One flu, one torn meniscus! Could be worse, right?

      Be well!

  4. Most interesting.

    We had a very warm February followed by a cold beginning to March, but there has been almost no snow. The other week I got around to reading through The Pioneers, and so got a glimpse of early Cooperstown under an alias.

    1. One element of this place that is very curious is the weird confusion between places from the books (and their names) and the places that exist... And that is true even though I may be the only person I know aside from Hugh MacDougall who has read the Leatherstocking tales.

      Moving here, I very soon thought that a book that blurred the lines would be true to the place. It's a peculiar place, Cooperstown.

    2. Once I get through some more pressing reading, I will go back and read The Pathfinder, which is the one of the tales that I haven't read. I think that the Leatherstocking Tales once has the cultural position of the Star Wars or Godfather movies: even those that hadn't actually partaken knew at least the broad outlines.

      I wonder where else such confusion occurs. Wessex? Faulkner's end of Mississippi?

  5. The difference, I think, between something like the Leatherstocking tales and something like Star Wars is that Cooper established mythic symbols and images for America (the plough enormous against the sun, etc.) He was myth-making for a new country in ways that struck people deeply. (Charles Brockden Brown did some of the same with his transposing the gothic to the forests, say, but--like many writers--he did not have the same luck with timing and was a little too early to be popular.)

    It may well be that other places have something of the same confusion, but I noticed it strongly here, perhaps because there are other fantastical elements like an inordinate number of ghosts, a glacial lake with monster, and a castle in the lake and a Norman tower in the woods.

    1. And mythic characters too, I should say--the noble frontiersman, the native man who is the very last of his kind, etc. Actually those sorts of figures reappear in Star Wars.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.