It is my great pleasure to introduce Mary François Rockcastle and her fiction to the pages of Numéro Cinq. I met Mary in an airport shuttle, both of us homebound to Minneapolis after the AWP conference in Chicago. Whereas I was completely exhausted and could have passed among the living dead, Mary seemed energetic, friendly and grounded. Chatting with her in Midway terminal was a perfect anodyne for post-AWP fatigue. Later, when I met with Mary in St. Paul to discuss her most recent novel, In Caddis Wood, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she has extended this same amount of energy throughout the renaissance of the Twin Cities’ burgeoning literary community. Indeed, Mary is a pioneer and champion of Minnesota literature: Mary and her colleagues launched Minnesota’s first MFA in Creative Writing program at Hamline University; she founded Hamline’s literary journal, Water Stone Review and remains its executive editor. Mary is the founding dean of Hamline’s Graduate Liberal Studies program as well as its Director of Creative Writing Programs.
But this list of career accomplishments (which is not all-inclusive) is to say nothing of the fact that Mary also writes books. Earlier in her writing career, Mary created a writing refuge in Minneapolis’s Loft Literary Center to make time to write after hours. Her ensuing dedication resulted in two novels—Rainy Lake and In Caddis Wood—both published by Graywolf Press and both nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in 1995 and 2012 respectively. The longer gestation period novels is not surprising. In Caddis Wood is a product of tireless research—a thoughtful study in botany, architecture, medicine and poetry. In Caddis Wood ultimately pays tribute to the midwestern landscapes of urban Minneapolis and the woods of Wisconsin––a place that becomes a fully-formed character in its own complexity and reveals a fragile symbiosis between humans and nature in the novel’s thematic undercurrent. The narrative oscillates between the two distinct points of view and voices of Hallie and Carl, whose storytelling reflects on their long marriage, weaving seamlessly between memory and the present day as they encounter Carl’s quickly-degrading health. In Caddis Wood has received praises from Publisher’s Weekly and the Star Tribune, which hailed Mary Rockcastle’s “remarkable accomplishment to find in [these] everyday occurrences a story of great moment.”
In chapter twelve excerpted below, Carl suffers from advanced stages of Shy Drager Syndrome, finding himself in a semi-lucid state that blurs memory with present day, the living with the dead. The chapter is a convergence of characters: Cory and Bea are Carl and Hallie’s daughters, Joe and Marnie are their neighbors. Among the dead are Tim, Cory’s former partner, and Alice, the former proprietress of Carl and Hallie’s cabin home.
— Mary Stein
HE CAN hardly speak now, only manages to scribble a few words. Hallie is good at interpreting his broken sentences and sprawled lines. He is a book, its pages laid out in front of her, written in a language only she can understand. She resists the gradual wasting away of his body, insisting on his daily exercises, pouring lotion on his peeling skin, feeding him as if he is a growing child and not a dying man.
Each morning she rolls the hospital bed onto the porch and as close to the window as possible, raising it so he’s in a sitting position and can see out. She cracks the window open a few inches. The drama in his head is as vivid as anything he sees on the television or DVD player. Sounds enter the constantly evolving film in his imagination: part real, part memory, part what happens when the different tracks collide and merge. He doesn’t know how much is caused by the illness, the cells in his brain ossifying like the rest of his body. After years of intense industry, his mind and body filling and using each moment, he has become friends with slowness. He is acutely aware of his surroundings, of each tiny change in his body and in the world he can see and hear.
He hears the pop, pop, bang of frozen trees. Swelling fibres of wood bursting and cracking. The rustle of cattails beside the stream, the ruffed grouse striking the white pine’s brittle branches, Hallie making coffee in the kitchen. He can hear his mother and father talking softly, thinking he’s asleep—one of their happier moments, making plans for Sunday at the beach. He’s in and out of the arcing waves, waits eagerly for the white froth to rise over his shoulder before he dives forward, bodysurfing the wave in to shore. Gritty sand against his stomach.
Soft clacking and crunching beneath the pines, snapping brush, skitters across frozen snow. Loud echo of a snapping branch, which clatters to the ground. Bittersweet berries flash scarlet on the bank and Bea in her red hat and Cory in her blue are rolling a head for the snowman. Tim’s curly hair is uncovered. They wind Lucas’ woolen scarf around the snowman’s neck, put one of Carl’s fishing hats on the head. Cory throws a snowball and they tumble over each other in the snow.
Sometimes he hears Alice’s voice, which is impossible since she was dead by the time they bought the summer cabin. But he knows it’s her. She and Hallie were right about the garden. All his grand schemes—flowers and shrubs and soil carted in, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, fences, screens. Nature laughing at him. Now, when spring comes, the meadow will bloom with native prairie grasses and wildflowers. Shrubbery planted along the edge of the house and meadow will provide food and cover for grouse, birds, the red fox family, woodchucks, and other animals. Hallie, with Joe’s help, has kept up the vegetable garden, though he suspects she’ll let it go once he’s gone.
He hears other voices, too. They began as a whisper, more than the sounds and music nature made. He listened hard, thought his mind was playing tricks or that the disease had entered his brain and was causing auditory synapses to misfire. The whisper grew and multiplied, became a chorus, until one day the sounds held meaning for him. Anima antiqua, Alice wrote in her notebook, the spirit that’s lived in a place for a long time. He hears it beneath the snow, the frozen ground. He hears it in the creaking branches, inside the whispering stream.
we are out we are inside the house we were here before we have our own lives hidden in the dark we nest inside the walls, beneath the floor we shudder and pop tap tap tap we’re hungry we sleep we dig our roots deep we die we return we listen we love in our own way we remember we are born in the dark we reach up toward the light
His mind is a camera, memories sharp as photographs. The house on that first visit: dull brown linoleum, dusty books, gray husks on sills. In the closet hung Henry’s parkas, flannel shirts, Alice’s hand-knit sweaters. Beneath them boots, bathinette, Swedish linens. Photographs: Alice’s mother against the Baltic Sea, Alice at age twelve—white middy blouse and knickers. Henry in his waders, Will in his Marine’s uniform. Hallie peers through the cloudy kitchen window. When she removes her hat, her hair tumbles like a rain of sugar maple leaves. He blinks and they are inside the tent and she is tweezing ticks off his body. In the light of the kerosene lantern against the walls of the tent, she takes off her blouse. He gazes at her graceful neck, the swing of her hair, her perfect breasts.
Hallie steps up behind him and wraps her arms around him, careful not to hurt him. For a moment he’s unsure where he is, whether they are here on this porch on a winter morning or there, inside the tent, the house silent in the dark. The birdfeeder spins and he remembers.
When he was a young man, he thought the body was everything. He looked at women, even after he was married, and lusted after their bodies. At night he’d wake and roll toward Hallie and just the feel of her skin or the smell of her hair made him harden with desire. He’d press against her, helpless to stop it, even though he knew she was sleeping and didn’t want it. Sometimes his drive was so great he woke her and she turned to him and let him come inside. Years later he felt the coldness in her back, her anger and his hurt and the loneliness in each of them. Then she fell in love with someone else, though he didn’t know it, only that he needed to go after her, make her believe in him again.
Now, when he can no longer string sounds into words, when his body is useless, when all sexual desire and function are gone, he reads her love for him in her eyes, feels it in the touch of her hands, the sound of her voice as she reads to him. He is surprised at how busy she keeps herself, how cheerful she is most days—humming or singing as she cooks or does housework, silent only when she reads or writes or works at the computer. Was she always this busy and happy in her daily life? Did the darkness descend only when he was present? She does not hover or interrupt his reverie. After years of simple meals, when she was teaching full time and writing, she enjoys cooking again. He loves the smells, warmth emanating from the kitchen. She wraps up what’s left over and takes it to Joe and Marnie’s, freezes it for Cordelia, who visits regularly, gives it to Father O’Neil, the priest from St. Luke’s Church in Spooner who comes once a week to give him Communion.
He hears a cupboard in the kitchen opening and closing, a pot against the stove. Soon the room fills with the smell of onions, beef, and vegetables. When the girls were little, he moved their high chairs side by side, pinned bibs around their necks as he fed them creamed carrots from a jar. Their orange faces stare back at him from the window pane. Cordelia chortles and spits carrots back at him. Bea blows hers into bubbles that dribble onto the tray. They laugh as he swipes at their faces with the washcloth.
Hallie pulls up a chair and a small table where she sets a steaming bowl of soup, plate of bread, and two cotton towels. One she lays across his upper chest and the other she hangs over her shoulder. She blows on the surface of the soup. He sees the tiny puckers in her lower lip, the downy hair on her skin. When she spills, she lifts the towel from her shoulder and deftly wipes his mouth and chin.
After, she puts on a stack of CDs and bundles up to go out. Each day she walks to the county road, five miles there and back. Unless it’s below zero, and then she goes only as far as the red gate. “Need anything?” she calls. Seeing by his face that he’s all right, she waves and shuts the door. He hears the crunch of her boots on the path. A wing flickers to his left and a rare chickadee lands on the feeder. tap tap tap cheer-up cheerily cheer-up cheerily, what-cheer cheer what-cheer cheer
The house shifts and groans. Beneath the floor the pine snake sleeps in an S-shaped coil. Eggs lie dormant in the sill between panes of glass. A red squirrel plucks a berry from the hedge and emits a chipping plaint. In her closet Alice’s hand-knit sweater slips off a hanger and falls noiselessly to the floor.
A woman appears in the yard, dressed in a brown overcoat. She glides lightly across the snow and disappears into the trees that line the slope above the swamp garden. He watches in his mind’s eye as she wends her way along the path. she knows our voice many voices not one she listens come home Henry come home she hears the rustling wind burbling bubbling rising and falling song trills chirps whistles metallic chips of birds she slides the pouch with Henry’s ashes inside the wall some of us die before our time we do not choose we feel what is lost but it is not grief we are in we are out of time
The phone rings and clicks and Cordelia’s voice pierces the quiet. “Hi, Dad. I e-mailed you the latest models. The committee liked your triangulated grid and the wrapped walkways. They were especially excited about the idea of drawing water up through the piles and distributing it through the landscape trays. Tell me what you think of the models. I’ll be out by dinnertime on Friday. Love you, Dad.”
Cordelia is walking toward the house, something held in her cupped hands: eggshells crushed by the bird’s weight. Yellowed leaves falling in the spring, acid in the stream, fish filled with toxins. He blinks and she is gone. A movement of white and then another and within minutes the air is filled with snowflakes that blanket the brown grass and melt into the metal-covered stream. He tries to focus on one flake at a time but they are falling too fast and blur into a confetti of white. At his grandfather’s window, he knelt as the snow fell on frozen fields. On Christmas Eve, at their home in Minneapolis, he stood on the back deck, meticulously scarring the new-fallen snow. The next morning Beatrice and Cordelia knelt at the dining room window peering out at the perfect line of reindeer tracks. What do you mean there’s no Santa. How the heck did those reindeer tracks get there? Tell me that. Years later Cordelia found the hand-made metal instrument in the garage, the long extender bar, forked ends mimicking the tracks of deer.
He had to wait until the ground had thawed enough to bury his mother. The local cemetery let him keep her in their vault, which was generous since neither she nor his grandfather was buried in that cemetery. The orchard was sacred ground for both of them. Carl dropped two red roses into the newly dug grave, the only black in a blanket of white.
The snow continues to fall and he hopes that Hallie will turn around and come back. Just the kind of weather they would have snowshoed or hiked in once. In Oslo, he and Sverre Bergström strolled at midnight through the snow, brainstorming ideas for the town hall. In the white he sees a figure. As the form moves closer, he recognizes his father’s telltale walk. He wills his hand to move, but the limb lies useless on the sheet. Where have you been? Tommy is dressed in the same brown corduroy slacks, navy blue sweater, blue Oxford cloth shirt. His hair and shoulders are flecked with snow.
Tommy stops a few feet from the window and they gaze at one another. Carl has so much he wants to tell him. I hear things: human voices, living and dead, sounds of the non-human world. I hear the creak and groan of the earth, sighs and whistling breaths of hibernating creatures, rasp of roots and silt sifting in the stream. I hear Cordelia and Beatrice at play. I hear my mother, your wife, weeping in the bedroom. I hear music and don’t know who is playing—Beatrice or her. I hear Frank Rossi calling me from the street, the click of our sticks against the ball, the El rumbling past my window.
When Hallie wakes him, he blinks at the darkened meadow, the untouched surface of the snow. She lights the lamps and washes his face and hands. She moves into the kitchen where he hears her preparations for dinner. Once the casserole is in the oven, she pulls her reading chair close to him, picks up Rilke’s Book of the Hours, and reads:
Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.
The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
He sees the shadowy trees, tips of wind-burned reeds. Hallie’s voice rises and falls like the tumbling stream.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.
He wants to tell her what it is like to be alive like this. She hides her sadness but he sees the imprint on her face when she returns from her walks. They await Bea’s next phone call, Cory’s visits, the next chapter of the book she’s reading to him, the way the woods change with each passing day. She feeds him, washes him, catheterizes him every few hours. It is just the two of them—her voice rising and falling, her hands tending him, her heat beside him.
––– Mary François Rockcastle
Mary François Rockcastle is the author of Rainy Lake. She is the director of The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, and the founding and executive editor of Water~Stone Review. She lives in Minneapolis.