No Book but the World
“Lush, dark and unsettling, No Book but the World haunted me for days. With great skill, Leah Hager Cohen takes us through a twisty and resonant tale about the price of secrets, the burden of family, the remnants of childhood we never leave behind.” —Megan Abbott, author of The End of Everything and Dare Me
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Leah Hager Cohen
I have been too fond of stories. Fred and me both. If I were called before a judge, that’s the first thing I’d confess: how quick I have been to embrace them, stories, with their deplorable tidiness. Like a bakery box done up too tightly, bound with red-and-white string.
The second thing I’d confess: how I am responsible for Fred’s fondness, how consequently he would have to be called blameless.
Oh Fred. Oh Freddy.
I could, would, gladly elaborate. In however much detail would help. I’d describe where it began, on the gray f lowered couch where we often sat, half sunk in its cushions, a couch I haven’t seen in over a decade, yet whose texture I recall with precision: the way it was coolish on our bare skin, glossy where the fabric was going threadbare and furred on the armrests where it had already frayed. I would testify to this, the fertile bed in which our fondness took root.
But look. Already—I throw up my hands. This is no more than a story itself, the one that goes Ava is guilty, Fred innocent. How eagerly the words spring into shape, winding themselves around a rigid latticework of meaning like the curling tendrils of some plant—like, in fact, the skeletal branches of ivy that crisscross the window here in this room that is not my room, but which belongs to a Mrs. Tremblay, who is not happy about renting it to me.
The fine-boned ivy, whose intricate fretwork clings to the screen, is at this moment holding tight against a lashing wind and pelting rain as if in helpful illustration of my very point, which is to say my problem: the easy danger of stories, their adhesive allure. The way, once a story takes hold, it begins to choke off the view.
I can hear Mrs. Tremblay downstairs now, moving about in her kitchen. Each sound she makes, innocuous though it really may be— the faucet turned on, then off, the creak of a cupboard, the clank of a metal pot—seems to reprove. When she rented me the room yesterday she was pleasant enough, but earlier this morning when I went down for the breakfast that is included in the price of the room her manner was cooler. I can only imagine she must have become more informed in the interim about who I am.
Fred and I have different surnames. He is still a Robbins but I am a Manseau, having taken Dennis’s name when we married. Why ever, and with what little consideration, did I shed my own? At the time I felt only impatience to don the costume of a married woman. Ava Manseau. Like playing dress-ups, I thought, although at twenty-five I was no child and should have been more deliberating, less hasty about the decision. But with its echo of trousseau, the very name seemed to waft and billow like the creamy organza of the imaginary gown I conjured and altered a dozen times during the weeks leading up to the wedding, at which I actually wore a sleeveless white shift from a consignment store. Too, there was the notion I’d be doing something that would please my husband-to-be. I was so eager, so impatient, to prove my willingness to conform. Later I allowed myself to realize—admit—that I had ascribed this desire falsely. Dennis never minded whether I took his name or not.
The different surnames explain why Mrs. Tremblay did not make the connection—neither on Monday, when I called about the room, nor yesterday, when, after driving eight hours from Freyburg I arrived on her doorstep here in Perdu, “so far upstate you can practically see Canada out the window,” as she announced with a kind of practiced delivery and accompanying hand gesture toward this ivy-choked pane—even though Fred has been so much in the news. She has a squished sort of accent. “Canada” gets flattened into “Kyaneda,” and “far” sounds almost like “fire.” After a brief tour, during which she pointed out the bathroom with its pink toilet seat cover and matching floor mat, and the old black push-button phone perched on a stand at the top of the stairs (“Your cell won’t work. From town it might do, but we don’t get any reception at all out this way.”), she accepted my check for one week’s stay, $196, made out to Mrs. Oliver Tremblay, taking time to read it over before putting it in the pocket of her boiled wool cardigan. I think she must be a widow.
The November rain is blowing sideways, crazing the glass. What is it about extreme weather that gives one the feeling of having traveled back in time? As if the past somehow had more weather; as if weather is one of those things that has dwindled or languished with modernity. It was raining, too, when I arrived yesterday, though more lightly then, the drops as tiny as if pressed through cheesecloth. Still, it was enough to slicken the flagstone path, and when, after Mrs. Tremblay took my check, I went back to the car to retrieve my suitcase, I slipped. One moment I was striding confidently on two legs. The next, my right foot slid forward and my left was no longer aligned in any way useful to holding me up. For one protracted moment the dun-and-gray world seemed shot through with color, and I caught a whiff of something sharp and bright: lemons, onions. Flailing, I managed to right myself, but that oddly invigorating moment of imbalance has stayed with me. Last night when I was trying to fall asleep it replayed several times in my mind and each successive time, rather than intensifying in fright, it seemed softer and more expansive, and finally almost pleasurable, like a dream of f lying.
Now the rain is really slashing down. I long for another cup of tea—breakfast was hours ago—but although yesterday Mrs. Tremblay showed me the tray she keeps available in the kitchen for guests, stocked with Tetley, Swiss Miss and packets of artificial sweetener and nondairy creamer, I am reluctant to go downstairs. On Monday, at home in Freyburg, while researching places to stay, a guesthouse had sounded cozier than a motel, not to mention less expensive and more convenient, the nearest motel I could find being twenty-three miles from where Fred is—but I’d pictured something different from this saltbox house with stained siding, hunkered stoically right on the edge of the county road. I’d pictured a place with more than one guest room, and a bar of soap by the guest sink that was not already pared down and riven with cracks, and a proprietress who didn’t seem so inconvenienced by, well, an actual guest.
It’s not as if I’m stuck. I have the car, could drive to town.
The prospect is not enticing. Four miles in the rain on a snaking one-lane road and then the lone diner where I ate last night. That’s the town, as far as I can tell: one diner, two bars, three churches, a handful of storefronts, a dozen shingles hung from front porches—family dentistry, chiropractic, dog grooming, tax prep—and running behind the row of old brick buildings that line the main street, a narrow, foul-smelling mill river the color of a paper clip.
Anyway, once there, what would I do? Sit at the counter on a vinyl-covered stool and stare at the cakes under glass, all the while being stared at by the other customers, who would know at the very least that I am “from away,” if not the details of what has brought me. Of who has brought me. I suppose I could ask for a cup to go. And then what? Drink it in the car. Behind the opaque waterfall of the wind-shield, beneath the rain beating its tiny fists on the roof. Or I could drive back here, bring the tea up to the aseptic stillness of this angular room under the eaves. How strange that would seem to Mrs. Tremblay.
She is shaped, I have noticed, like an eggplant, and her mouth looks permanently pursed, her lips jutting out as if fastened around a sour ball. She’d glance up from—what? her ironing, her coupons, her cross-stitch?—eye me coming in with my paper cup, the shoulders of my coat dark with rain, and be sorry all over again that she’d taken my check.
I reach into my bag and pluck the torn envelope on which I have written the assigned counsel’s contact information and the time he has agreed to meet: four p.m. He has one of those inverted names—Bayard Charles—which seems very lawyerly and formal of him. His office isn’t in Perdu but over in Criterion, the county seat. I have decided to allow myself a full hour to get there, and still that means I have three hours to slog through before I leave, and the weather has conspired to pen me here.
So I remain, tealess, in this chilly bedroom I think must once have belonged to a daughter or a son, but which has been stripped of any indication; it is a neutered space, pared down to bare essentials and a few desultory efforts at decoration: a faded print of geraniums over the bed; a faded print of a barn and silo on the opposite wall; a dusty succulent in a plastic pot on the rattan table by the window, where I sit with the composition book Kitty gave me unopened in my lap. I have noticed a burn mark on the carpet near the dresser, remnants of tape on the ceiling, and a large rectangle of blue wallpaper deeper-hued than the rest. Even the aberrations are minor, nondescript.
I could not number the scars left on our own house. I’m thinking not only of those we (by which I mean mostly Fred) inflicted, but also of the ones we inherited, marks made by people we never met, but which we came to know as intimately as the freckles, moles, protrusions and concavities of our own bodies. When I was little and the distinctions between familiar and unfamiliar were not yet fixed, explorations of my body yielded at times that which seemed foreign, even that which seemed against me, unfriendly. I remember encountering one afternoon, while studying myself in the bathroom mirror, the irregular topography of the underside of my tongue. Dark-veined and grotesquely anchored to the bottom of my mouth by a wobbly pink tether, it repulsed—this rudely intractable item that was part of me.
Similarly, I remember explorations of our home yielding spots that felt as remote and mysterious and vaguely threatening as anything in my most forbidding dreams: the weirdly gouged section of the upstairs banister that looked like it had had a bite taken out of it; the dinner-plate-sized bulge in the living room wall that seemed evidence our house had at one time been under siege by cannon; the leg of our coffee table that was covered with rows of evenly spaced scratches, as though someone—or something—had scored it with a fork or a set of sharpened claws.
But there I go again. Further evidence of my inability to consider a thing without imagining the story behind it as a needful force, a great petitioning weight.
Mrs. Tremblay might have the right idea with this guest room, after all. Void the space of history’s crumbs; annul all suggestive detritus. Do not feed but let fast the traveler’s weary mind. Tabula rasa: the kindest form of hospitality.
It doesn’t work on me. In the absence of external grist, my mind turns to the silt it is already carrying around. This room, rinsed of nuance, only sends me deeper into my own thoughts, so heavily dusted— everywhere coated—with Fred.
Yesterday before making my way to Mrs. Tremblay’s I went to see the building, long and yellow and close to the ground, set back from the road many hundreds of yards. I didn’t realize I’d assumed it would be fenced until I saw it was not. In the slanting light of late afternoon, with the sky raw and low and bristling with moisture, the undulating sweep of grass between road and building had been the flat color of the ocean on a hazy day. Hillocks stood in for waves and rendered the building ship-like. I drove by, made a U-turn and drove back again, slowing, vaguely aware of the possibility of seeming suspicious to anyone watching, only no one was. I saw no movement, no figures, no cars, not even lights in the narrow windows. Just the edifice itself, and a flagpole f lying its requisite banner, dark and drooping in the rain, and a sinuous road that must have been the way in but whose course was erased by the tall grass that swallowed it beyond the first rise.
I might really have been gazing at the ocean, for the seasick feeling that rose in my gorge—to know Fred was inside, to be so close and yet unable to see him or even let him know I was there.
I am not allowed in.
New inmates are entitled to one fifteen-minute non-contact visit with anyone they wish during the first twenty-four hours after commitment, but that time window expired yesterday morning before I was able to get here. I learned these rules Monday by going on the website, after discovering he’d been moved from the hospital to the county correctional facility. Henceforth, from what I have been able to gather—or really from what Dennis, who is not only more Internet-savvy but also less incapacitated by this particular news, was able to gather and then pass along—Fred will be allowed two one-hour visits per week, any days except Tuesday and Wednesday. On weekends only, visits are structured according to the first letter of the inmate’s last name, the second half of the alphabet falling on Sunday. Also on weekends only, a two-hour visit is allowed if the visitor has had to travel at least a hundred miles, one way, from home to the jail (proof of residency required), but then this takes up the inmate’s entire week of visitation in one day. Visits must be scheduled in advance, by telephone or in person with the Lobby Officer, Monday through Friday between four p.m. and nine p.m., or Saturday and Sunday between eight a.m. and two p.m. I haven’t yet been able to ascertain how much in advance “in advance” means. And all of this, I ultimately learned, is in any case moot, because visitors’ names must previously be placed on a visitation list in order to have their requests processed.
“How do I get on the list?” I asked when I finally got through to a human.
“The inmate has to put your name down.” A middle-aged smoker, her voice at once clipped and bored.
“How do I get a message to him to put me on it? He won’t know . . . We haven’t been—”
“You can tell him by phone.”
“I can call him?” A rush of relief. “Is it a different number, or can you connect me?”
A sigh. Then: “Inmates-don’t-receive-calls. They-have-phone-time-every-day-he-can-call-you-then. It’s-a-collect-call-you’ll-have-to-be-home-to-accept-the-charges.”
“And if he doesn’t call?”
Then: “Ma’am. You can write him a letter.” Before I could ask she began reciting the address, and it might have been the pledge, she said it so fast and cute. I had to quick find a pencil and beg her to repeat it.
I put a letter in the mail to you, Fred, before going to bed Monday night. I walked down the dirt road to the paved road, a walk you and I took so many times together, you with a long stick in your hand, running it along the trunks of trees we passed. I put it in the mailbox and raised the red f lag. The mailbox that sits alone now but once perched in a row of mailboxes, like plump metal hens, which you would strike with your stick, making them cluck and squawk, tapping out your non-rhythms on their silver backs. I don’t suppose my letter can have reached you yet.
And where exactly are you, Fred, on this drenched November morning, eight days after they initiated the search, five days after they found you, four days after they found the boy they say you took into the woods? You’re some four miles from me, closer than we’ve been in almost two years. But where are you precisely, in that long, yellow brick building? At one of the windows, perhaps, its own pane crazed by the sideblown rain, looking out at the midmorning darkness? What might you be seeing beyond the storm? The boy? The boy whose only image I’ve seen is the sixth-grade school photo that has been reproduced in all the papers and on all the television news updates, a very nearly generic image of a boy in a red and blue rugby shirt, yet with something disconcertingly familiar about his look: the unkempt dark hair and full cheeks, the smile just wide enough to reveal the frank thrust of his top front teeth. Not so much rabbity as game-looking, that bite of his. Is that how he looked to you? Game.
As you were always game. Do you remember that, how game you were, back in those days when we played our own game in the woods?
But maybe you’re seeing something else at this moment beyond the streaming pane, its vista erased by a network of rivulets, replaced by images of whatever it is you did with a different child in a different woods. Is that what you see, not the boy himself but the stages of the event as it unfolded? Do you replay those steps in your mind? What are they, Fred? I need to know. When you see me, will you explain?
Or perhaps you are focused instead not on the event as it occurred but as you’d intended it to occur—whatever your intention was I do not know, only that it differed, must differ, from what actually came to pass. That much is certain. That much about you I assuredly still do know. You are no plotter, no predator. Of all people—you, who were allowed to grow into a natural man, who were not put into a press, are you not, as our parents might say, incapable of evildoing?
I can’t help imagining that as you look out your own window at the tossing darkness of this morning, you might be seeing me. Is it ego that binds me to you, makes me see you seeing me? Seeing me beside you, before you, up on the f lowered couch, kneeling by your bed, standing over you as you lay on the stone slab in the woods, taking you by the hand, leading you places.
Is it guilt?
Freddy, come. How many times did I urge you on, tug your wrist, yank your elbow, even at the risk of upsetting you? Because as everyone knew you did not like to be touched. I touched you anyway, and you let me. Sometimes. You let me more than anyone else. I was the big sister. I could take your hand, pull your thumb from your mouth, pry the stick from your fist. Freddy, come on. Let’s go. I could guide you into the woods, out to our special spot. Dress you in silks. Cover your eyes. Prick your finger.
But I never did that: prick your finger. Nor did Kitty. That is one thing we never did.
Or is it our parents you visualize as you look out the window? I see them often, and always in tandem. Even when I picture them physically apart, they remain paired, joined by a kind of invisible thread. You could feel it running between them, this thread, pliable and strong, holding them together, eternally allied through every superficial disagreement.
Mostly I picture them together. In the front seat of the car, the backs of their heads silhouetted against the windshield, hers a good three inches higher than his. On the f lowered couch, her feet in his lap, their voices rumbling above us as we maneuvered our toy cars around our father’s shoes. I see them diverting themselves from whatever conversation they were having to regard us from a bemused distance, from high in the ether, twirling in the thin atmosphere of their thoughts, their philosophy. Floating above our heads like paper dolls cut from a single sheet of construction paper, their hands joined at the fold. Their free hands extended as if to summon us forward, although couldn’t the gesture as easily be interpreted as a staving off, their hands flexed at the wrist, bidding us go be independent?
We succeeded in that, Fred, you and me. We were independent, inhabiting our home like two small grown-ups, or no, like gnomes, solid little earthbound creatures, hiding and tunneling and exploring on our own. We mined every corner of our house for mystery, for treasure. Is that what you see in the opaque surface of your watery window-pane? Our house, with its soft pine floors so quick to take an impression (the many impressions, for example, of your own pounding fists and heels during your frequent tantrums, or the dents you made tapping out erratic rhythms with building blocks or the blunt ends of butter knives); its potted plants, so fiercely healthy, their vines running rampant along shelves and sills and spilling over to snake across the floor; its listing door and window frames, everyone just a little bit warped, a little bit crooked, so that nothing ever hung plumb?
When we tired of our house, we’d move outdoors—by then we often had Kitty with us, too—and go scavenging in the tangled meadow and the scratchy woods. We did not limit ourselves to the woods as we found them, but invented within them a realm of our own, a place no one else knew about, no one else could enter or even perceive. It lay, this place, no more than a quarter mile behind our house, but it was unreachable by others. We, too, were beyond reach there. We did as we’d been bid: we acted independently in that realm.
Perhaps this is what you see, staring out your barred window—for I think it must have bars; I see it with bars; I have invented that detail— staring through silvered slashes of rain that light up your memories with the faltering f licker of an old film projector. Perhaps you see what I am seeing now, as I write: Batter Hollow, with its cluster of five mismatched cottages, and the jagged pines spreading densely back for acres, and what we fashioned out there, Fred—you and Kitty and me.
Praise for The Grief of Others
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