I have secret writers: or writers I want to keep secret. At the same time, want to tell everyone who will listen to go read their work. Micheline Aharonian Marcom is one of those writers. She is not an easy read by any means, even when she writes with short sentences, they are often heartbreaking and frequently morally and socially ambiguous. She is a writer of the heart—a heart in conflict with itself—and A Brief History of Yes (Dalkey Archive Press) is a very sincere novel. Modern cynicism won’t be welcomed. As in her previous novel The Mirror in the Well, I think she is trying to rehabilitate words that have lost their meaning through overuse or cliché. Words like “love,” “lover,” and “beloved” abound in this novel, and at one point her protagonist poses the question—“What is love?” The modern reader winces at this point of inquiry because to his/her ears it’s hokey and played-out—it’s pop music lyrics appearing in a serious novel. Yet to read Marcom’s book is to ponder the question without prejudice and with seriousness.
Herewith are the opening five chapters of A Brief History of Yes.
So that, yes, here are the two lovers again, and their love affair spans a calendar year—August to August, dry season to dry season—and like the songbird who remains a short while in the hillside grove before he departs for the south—the lovers arrive and pass their season together and then pass on to other lovers and another season in the following summer, or autumn for the hermit thrush who returned to the girl’s hillside grove in October from the North two months after the end of the love affair, made his yearly urgent unstoppable migration, stays his three weeks, and the earth revolving around the sun, and the songbird singing his ingrained blood song and moving toward his final winter destination as the weather permits and decrees.
He is tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed. She is tall for a Portuguese, and dark-eyed, dark-haired. She is called Maria like so many of the women of her generation for the mother of God, and he bears a deformity across his chest where the bones and cartilage did not form properly across his heart when he was a child—“There was the possibility of a surgery when I was a boy,” he tells Maria after they have removed their clothes for one another for the first time, the naked body, and made love in August and she sees his concave chest area, the hollow, in the summer eve in the window light of his bedroom, “a surgeon offered to break each rib bone in my chest and to place a steel rod through the cartilage below the sternum.” He is a man with a concave chest, he is someone who needs love she thinks when she sees him naked on this first occasion; or: he is someone who has not had it, his heart tight and duly too hemmed in by the chest cartilage which holds closely to the muscle. “My parents did not force me to have the surgery,” and he says that he is grateful to them now, “for there could have been complications,” he tells her while they lie on the wide bed in his city apartment, “the procedure has since been improved upon, and now to correct the deformity the surgeon will place an enormous magnet below the skin and one on the top of it also, here, and thereby make a force to pull the chest bones outward,” he smiles, and Maria smiles also: her brown eyes, his blue, the colors magnetic, the invisible chords which draw this particular woman, a Portuguese, across the ocean from her city on the Tagus to this man in his city by a large salt-water bay in America. I made a journey to your country to find you, she doesn’t tell him. It is also true that she has lived in his country for twenty-five years and there have been many lovers before him and a husband also, and an eight-year-old son from her marriage and I’ll fix your heart, she thinks, a little arrogant in the way that she thinks it, as women sometimes are in their desire to fix and alter and abrogate the male (I’ll wash your feet for you); my own muscle to pull yours hidden outward.
Twelve months later in August, the blue-eyed lover will tell the Portuguese girl that he would like to end their affair, “I love you, Maria, but I am not in-love with you,” he will say to her on the telephone. She cries into the black machine after he says the not-in-love-with-you words. “But last week,” she tells him, “when you said” and. And she will think at that moment on the telephone and their bodies separated by miles, by the bay waters, by the ineffable, not of him but of his ill-formed and moderately collapsed chest bones, the concavity of his body which unprotrudes below the satellites of his sternum, of love and property—and of his conventional and moderate ideas (and hers always immoderate) of love and property, for it is a small fact like a small nuisance (a small corrosive fact) that her blue-eyed lover is a rich man and his monies sit in accounts where the numbers only move skyward, and many things rise up for her lover except for his breast bone and cartilage contused and dimly knitted and hunkered down over muscle, except for love. And like a boy alone on his child’s bed, the boy who hit his head against a wooden headboard in his inability to sleep and find ease each night at bedtime, and so rocked and hit the body against wood for the rhythm it made the sleep it then brought, her lover not-thinks but learnt that succor is found in these lonely collisions. His mother told Maria of it once, “I could hear him alone in his room when he was a boy. He’d hit his head against the black board of his bed and rocked himself thereby to sleep each night.” I couldn’t stop it, I could not help him, his mother did not say to Maria, but the quiet blue-eyed, anxious-failed-look of the mother said it to the Portuguese girl: the too tightly knit mother for whom all things must needed to be proper and in their place and observant of all of the codes of the moral Protestant upper classes and the codes placed thereby above the son (which needs which desires, his terrors) when he was a boy and the mother was filled with all of her strict and proper (not love) ideas of love.
The lovers take a walk on the beach in the third week of their affair, months before Maria met her lover’s mother, months also before he mentioned to Maria on a walk in a dark wood how he used to put himself to sleep each night by rhythmically rocking and hitting his head against the wall of his headboard when he was a child. The lovers walk together on the long beach, although they do not walk hand in hand, for the blue-eyed lover does not like to hold the hand of his beloved, “It makes me uncomfortable,” he says. The lovers walk and the waves crash against the sand and the sea water is cold and they tell each other the stories that lovers will tell at the beginning of an affair, he of his family on the Eastern Seaboard, of his schooling (although he will not yet confide that he and his family are of the upper class, just as he does not confide for many months: eight: how many women he has fucked and the prostitutes and the casual encounters he makes via the dating services; I distinguish virgin and whore), “My mother was a brat,” he says. And Maria is surprised and taken aback at the casual and critical manner in which her lover speaks of his mother, and to someone whom he has only just met, and they are walking unhand in hand on the beach, her shoulder presses against his at certain intervals.
And Maria tells her lover of her parents and of her childhood in Lisbon, and of the summers they spent at the village house in the Alentejo when she was a young girl, and of how she emigrated to America twenty-five years ago with her mother when she was fifteen years old.
Later at a Japanese restaurant he will say, “I am not like everyone else.” Or Maria says it, “I am unlike the others,” and the two lovers smile at each other: his blue and hers brown smiling look, thinking that we have found each other, that here you are: recognition in a flash of light of dialogue a phrase handed out between two perambulators first on a beach and now sitting in a Japanese restaurant, “Yes,” she says; yes he also; and the yeses make light, make something to yes to, to love alongside of in time.
In January at her lover’s house, in her lover’s bed, Maria dreamed of the old village house in the Alentejo and of ghosts. A ghost stood in the living room in her dream, as he stood in the old house when she was a girl, and it was a frightening, lurking feeling to see him again, and the winds, the waters of the Atlantic rested tightly upon his brow, and he was a fisherman who died too early and then returned and would not leave the village house and says to Maria that he is lonely, alone, cold, and sad, that can she help him. Then Maria is in the house she lives in now in the dream, by the hillside grove of trees, except that it is a house down the street from her lover’s house and in her lover’s city and she is alone (as she was often alone in the village house in the Alentejo) and there is a different ghost and no, she says, she won’t allow it inside of this clean house. Then she walks into the garden and there is a newly dug grave, whose grave? she wonders, and sees in the dirt hole a decaying corpse but does not cannot recognize the man. And she and her lover did not fight last night, in fact there is love like a river between them now, and moves down stronger, wider than the Tagus and with pleasure—she loves him, he doesn’t leave her now, I love you, he says into the space they make between their chestbones in bed and naked.
Last night they touched their knees one to the other, and she told him a story about the beginning of their love affair and he told her how when he saw her walk into the bar the first time that he saw her (what did you think? she asked), he thought that she was beautiful. Ah, she said, I am happy now. I am happy also, he said. And the two lovers went to sleep side by side and she fell into sleep so deeply and soundly that upon waking she didn’t know where she was, only the remembered houses with ghosts and bright colors, the dead fisherman from the sea in the Alentejo in her dream in the past. Who, she wondered, and what. And does the corpse return, does death.
He and she stand at a threshold not holding hands; they stand apart, they break apart. He says, “Maria, you are not right for me. We are no match, not a good match” like an unlighted object. Or: “Maria, your English breaks down sometimes and incorrectly turns a phrase or long vowels: why can’t you put it together more correctly.” Or: “Maria, you could laugh more; you could laugh into my ear tonight late and why don’t you laugh more and play with me and are all the Portuguese as you are—sadder?” And, “Maria, I need a happy girl, a girl for whom to be happy and to laugh come easily like a clean and organized house: easy for a woman to make it so,” (and to fix my buttons, resole my shoes, cook the meal, hold the unheld heart, laugh me up into the rising thermals; in this house all of the insides of kitchen cabinet drawers are orderly and clean and happy.)
Maria made a story about the lover and he was blond and blueeyed and he arrived into the village house in the Alentejo in a lonely white clay city at night inside a bar with twin palms painted onto the sign hanging outside of the bar premises, palms for victory and auspicious futures. You were sad; whiteshirted; I saw you could save you, Maria says in the story she made; in my country I saved thousands of men. And today she is poised on the threshold and she is going to pass through into another place without the lover, for the lover has berated her, he has turned from love, he has said to her not this. (What has the girl said; what story wrought from iron from past-tense muscles? What no?)
There are three-legged dogs in the white clay city, they jump up and down onto their lone back appendage. There is a girl, Maria is dark-eyed, dark-haired, some say that she could be beautiful in the night if the lights have not risen over the steep crevices of the lonely mind; inside of the The Twin Palms Bar where the lovers first met in August, she is the most beautiful. In the August of the following year, she is afraid. “Lover,” she turns to look at him, “Lover, do I pass over the threshold without you? Will you, will you not, miss me? (long for me?)” This is the beloved’s poorly phrased question, Maria says: “Lover, the world began with a yes.”
Sometimes I have wondered, she thinks, if in the realm of the lover, the beloved, some things must be felt, some powers wielded with knife, with mace, and it matters not who wields the weapon: just that the invisible energies of the lovers move around the girl, the boy; he berates her; she cries; she walks out of the room from him; he says you are not right for me; she says that he is blind; she then he then he then she. As if the invisible forces must have their due; as if the old gods have not disappeared into ether, although their stories no more read told or understood than the three-legged dogs, the limping and howling taciturn mongrels of the white clay city, they can dance only on the one extant hind leg.
But today, Lover, she says, we have not spoken in more than a century. The winds have passed over and into tree branches outside my window; there is a house on a hill across the saltwater bay in another city, it has windows; doors; a songbird which returned today to the grove of trees adjacent to it. Do you hear it singing? Maria asks her young son in the morning. She has not yelled her lover’s name; her son has not cried this morning to see the maenad, his mother, avenging with her black cape her black nails and ugly old eye-looks. I am old now, Maria thinks, since my lover and I parted ways.
Do I call you? What will I say to you? Return to me, for I am afraid at the loss of your scent, your blue-eyed look when it is filled-to with desire on the occasions that your fear was abated; your feet and the curvature of the nails on your feet, your hands (I could wash your feet). But which sacrifice? Have I not listened? Have I not been myself, and who is she: Maria? The beloved? A woman from Portugal’s capital city. A sexually voracious she-ox? The suffering one. Mother of god. And inside of the maze of my own thoughts and ideas, Maria thinks, did I lose the girl who said I am free I laugh the joy comes on like the next awaited season.
—Micheline Aharonian Marcom