Milk and Honey: Chapter One

Please keep in mind, as you read this, that this is a very rough draft of what will, one day, be a novel… I am currently revising/rewriting

Evelina fingers a tarnished, too small ring as she sits upon the old oak organ seat of her brother’s church.  The man who had given her this ring, along with a promise, a couple of months ago has disappeared into New York City’s dirty streets; he conquers her mind.  She raises the ring to her nose in search of some familiar fragrance his finger-tips might have left, but she receives no such gift.  She dives into her own memory searching for his face, his brooding eyes, and his visions.  Feeling numb, she plays the first strains of Handel’s Messiah, but she cannot continue.  She closes the organ key cover, blows out all of the candles save the one she lit for him and leaves the church.
Once in the street, Evelina looks blindly at the window of the post office.  The lights now off and the shades drawn, she reassures herself that she wouldn’t have gone in again anyway.  She has been twice today already—no letter, not a word.  Yesterday was the same, and Monday the same as that. “I should have listened to Memere, ”  she whispers to herself, “she said that you can tell anything you need to know about a man from his eyes.  She told me that when she looked into Louis’ eyes, she saw a void, she saw madness.  Strangely, it was those very eyes that drew me in.  I was at the organ as my brother led the Mass and this man walked down the centre of the church as if out of a dream.  He was out of place in our small church—he seemed to be more suited to receiving praise than giving it.  His eyes met mine and I fell in. ”
“I should have listened to Memere.  Louis was a tramp, essentially, moving from parishioner’s house to parishioner’s house—staying just long enough so as not to wear out his welcome.  He told me that he was from Manitoba, but that he now considered this to be his home since he’d found me here.  I believed.  He told me of his visions a few times when we first met and they didn’t seem to fit with his supposed longing to start a family with me.  I miss him. I wish he would write again.  He will, I’m sure, as soon as he finds the time—maybe he’s found a job.  I secretly hope he hasn’t, though.  That would mean we’ll have to move out there and the big city scares me.  Whitman lives there though, doesn’t he?  I like his book—he must be getting old now.  Memere says that Whitman is a pagan and a heathen: “Imagine, writing a whole poem about yourself!”  I’ve tried to tell her that it is about much more than that, but she can’t get past the first line. ”
Before entering her brother’s house, Evelina walks into the out-house and closes the door behind her.  She fumbles for a match to light the lamp on the shelf to her left, and breathes the sulphurous birth of its flame.   She guides the match to meet the oily wick of the lamp; the light pleases her.  Evelina lifts the lid first and then lifts her skirt.  She sits down upon the smooth wooden seat.  Muscles now relax and she hears the sound of her own stream melting into the soil beneath her.  Before standing up, she is careful to place her fingers between her legs to check for blood.  These days she waits for blood as anxiously as she waits for his letters.  As she brings her fingers to her nose she pulls back her fingertips to expose pungent fingernail.  She draws heavily, as he used to draw on his cigarettes.  She does not smell any remnant of iron; only earthy piss.  She exhales a sigh. “I should have listened to Memere. ”
“This has happened before, though.  One time I didn’t bleed for four months, and then only a few drops.  I’ve been tense, waiting for letters that never come and the longer I go without bleeding, the more I worry about that too.  I just moved out of Memere’s house and I hear that can sometimes mess things up; my rhythm is just a bit off.  It was only one night, and he came on my belly and we wiped it off quickly.  I wanted him to come inside of me, but he insisted and now I’m glad that he did.  I think we were safe enough.  Still, no blood.  What has it been now, three months?  Yes.  Well, I’ll wait another week and then I might start to really worry.  For now, supper. ”
Three weeks go by; no letters and no blood.  She is nervous.  The thought and the smell of eggs in the morning make her ill.  She drinks cool water, chews ginger and fights off the nausea.  Panic is now her home.  The muscles in her back have tightened and she has trouble concentrating.  At mass last Sunday, she played the wrong song and hit more than a few off key notes.  She looked at the congregation’s confusion in her round mirror and nearly broke down crying.  She left the church that Sunday without saying a word to even those who were closest to her, who probably would not have mentioned her mistake.  Her clothes shrink; her breasts ache.  She knows.
And still no letter from Louis.  She has considered writing to him, but it is his turn.  She has written three letters since his last.  She fears his response should he ever find out.  She imagines the dark look in his eyes intensifying and the prospect terrifies her though he has never spoken a harsh word to her.  She wonders if she will ever hear from him again.  While he spoke of their marriage as if it was inevitable, while he spoke of settling down, of having a farm and catching rainbow trout, such dreams collide with his visions of leading his people out of exile.  David never settled down, he killed giants instead.  She is jealous, not of New York City women, but of the entire nation of people who need him just as much as he needs them.  And she disgraced, and she swollen, and she crying into the space beside her that he once occupied.  A spirit moves within her and all she wants to do is slaughter the spirit, to choke it before it summons up the courage to cry in its own defense.  She wants the spirit dead, along with the memories that keep it company.  She weeps.
The following morning on her way to Mass, Evelina passes the unkempt, sprawling yard of a house that has, in recent days, become a magnet to her feet.  The flowers in the garden are not defended from weeds that climb up and hide their pink faces from the sun.  Many of the windows of the house are broken—one might even mistake the house for an old, abandoned relic were it not for the plethora of stories that surround the woman who lives there.  The woman brings an abandoned house to life, though the kind of life she brings is monstrous, weird even.
Her name is Joy.  She had lived in the house with her husband until the Civil War stole him from her.  After his death was confirmed, she stopped attending Mass.  She thanklessly accepted the various burnt offerings of food brought to her door by various women from the church until they stopped bringing them.  She never returned the pots the food was given to her in and the women seethed at their loss.
Over the years, Joy’s withdrawal from the community has fueled a fire of mythology.  Some say that she lost her mind when she lost her husband.  These people swear that they hear laughter flowing from the woman’s house on cold nights when the air lends itself to the convection of such noises.  Some say that she has gone to the dark side.  When cats disappear from barns, as they often do, the natural suspect is Joy; it is said that these cats are sacrificed on a satanic altar in her basement.  Others, more sympathetic, perhaps, simply claim that her heart died with her husband.  She had a history of long and debilitating bouts of sadness before his death and his passing was simply more than she could bear.  While Evelina has always been disposed to believing the latter of these stories, another story now fascinates her.
Evelina has heard of various girls, some of whom she went to school with, who went to Joy in order to be cured of disgrace.  While Evelina knows none of these girls well enough to be sure of the accuracy of the tales, she watches them closely to see if there are any signs of disgrace about them.  She studies their complexions, searching for a lack of colour.  She studies their hips to detect any sign of stiffness or pain.  She studies their voices for whispers of cracks or croaks that may betray past trauma.  The girls, however, are now seemingly untouched by darkness or light.  Angels are indifferent to these women.
Still, the sight of the house makes Evelina ill.  She has an over-active imagination that takes advantage of the peoples mythology swirling around in the dust, and impregnates it with her own horrific speculation.  She looks towards the house and smells deeply but the only things her nose finds have already been discovered by her eyes.  She smells the decay of brown leaves that lay scattered about the dirt.  She smells the death of rose hips.  Her pace quickens until she arrives at her brother’s church, but she brings the house, with all its broken windows, its peeled paint and its dandelions with her.  She walks through the door and then up to the front of the church and she sits upon the old oak organ bench.  The spirit within her screams.
Evelina hoped that the Latin liturgy would distract her from the sounds of the screaming spirit.  The incense comes close to absolving her of her burden, but eventually just mingles with the dead leaves her nose desperately clings to.  People look at her strangely, shake her hand all too formally and their conversations are brief though she craves the sounds of their voices.  She realizes when she gets home that she has forgotten her sheet music on the altar.  She immediately retraces her steps back to the Church and this time, she stops in front of the house.  Somehow, it no longer terrifies her.  Birds sing songs in and of trees.  The claws of squirrels navigate the salty texture of peanut shell.  The house itself glistens in the sun as if it has recently been painted.  She thinks to herself that the house might even be mistaken for a church by those ignorant of its storied occupant.  The house stands in front of her like white music.
In spite of the seeming change in the appearance of the house, its guts remain lifeless.  Evelina searches in vain for even a glimpse of the widow, but curtains laugh in her face.  Suddenly, she is aware that she is standing in front of a notorious house with a look of longing in her eyes; she quickly looks away.  She looks around to see if anyone is watching her; she blushes, and walks quickly towards the church, though by now she has forgotten the reason for her return.  She crosses herself and walks back towards her brother’s house, careful to avoid glancing at the seductive white home she has been carrying around with her all morning long.  She makes it to her brother’s house without thinking much at all.
Another sleepless night, not out of desire but out of necessity.  Sleep promises dreams and dreams give birth to the monstrous child within her who threatens to devour her.  Her back, sore and strained, is not at all comforted by the soft matt reserved for her in the corner.  She sits at her table, lights a lamp and reads Louis letters again though she has memorized them all by now.  His bold ink is now faded from being ravaged over and over by her desperate pupils.  She puts the letters aside and licks the rag they used to clean up her belly on that night long ago.  When moistened, the rag comes back to life.  The thick smell of the thing drenches her nostrils and she feels as though she is drowning.  She pulls it away and throws it back in the box that holds the rag like a corpse and she weeps.  She fears she might wake her brother, who treasures his sleep, and buries her face in a pillow: soon it is drenched with salty tears.  Crying pulls her towards sleep, but she resists.  She slaps her face until her cheeks, already red from her tears, become crimson and splotchy.  She is scared to make coffee as it might wake her brother who snores from the room next to the kitchen, so she smuggles dark beans into her room and sucks on them as if to avoid death.  Her teeth now yellowed, she reads the book of Job by candle-light.
Strange thoughts go through one’s mind in the small hours of a sleepless night.  The morning’s most cheerful birds seem to mock us with their songs.  Songs of joy become songs of lament to the sleepless.  Evelina hates the birds’ songs almost as much as she hates the sounds her brother makes as he crawls out of his slumber.  She hastens to her bed and pretends to sleep though he rarely checks on her.  It is an awful thing to pretend to do the things we are not able to do.  Usually she waits an hour before mimicking the exaggerated expressions of rising, but this morning she is quick to extend her arms in a stretch and bellow out a yawn.  Soon after, she joins her brother in the kitchen.  She enters and she breathes heavily the smell of the liquid coffee she has been craving all night.  The smell distracts her from formal early morning chatter with her brother.  She is never talkative in the morning so she does not fear being suspicious to her brother, but he looks at her with daggers anyway.
Eggs and toast, as usual.  Evelina prods her food disinterestedly, drawing yellow patterns on her plate with runny yolk.  She uses the toast as a sponge to draw thicker lines and to shade in the fine outline of fork tine template.  “People in the congregation are beginning to talk about you, Evelina.”  Brother’s voice startles Evelina out of her exhaustion.  Heartbeats.  “What do you mean?”  “What do you think I mean?”  Silence, save for the ever-intensifying scrape of brother’s cutlery on plate.  Nothing else is said.  Nothing else needs to be said.  Brother cleans up his own dishes and leaves for morning mass.  She sits alone.
Time stops.  Evelina remains sitting at the table in a trance as she considers her brother’s words.  For the past few months, she has seen herself as a victim, struggling under the ruthless tyranny of the life inside her.  Her universe has been whittled down to three people: her, the victim.  It, the monster.  And he, who exists only in ink.  Other people in the town, her brother included, have started to wonder.  People are talking.  Evelina sympathizes with Joy.
Evelina now knows that it is too late for the white house.  In a daze, she walks over to the medicine cupboard and is mildly comforted by the music of clinking bottles as she looks for her cure.  Many months ago, her brother had one of his migraine attacks.  His doctor prescribed laudanum for the pain, but her brother did not like how he felt when he took the stuff and decided to suffer instead.  The bottle is almost full.  Evelina walks to the gramophone and drops the needle on Brahms’ black document.  She moves to the table, sits down and takes a big swig.  Her stomach is on fire.  She coughs and once again finds herself fighting off nausea.  She takes an even bigger swig, and then another; the bottle is now empty and sits next to the Bible on the table.  She sits and waits, surprised by the absence of her tears.  She opens the Bible, and across the blackness that comes over her eyes, she sees the flickering light of these words: “Verily I say unto thee, today thou shall be with me in Paradise.”

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3 Responses to Milk and Honey: Chapter One

  1. Intriguing, although the pacing needs to slow down a bit and needs some small editing.

    For example: The line “Birds sing songs in and of trees” is simple and beautiful. But the line “The delicate claws of squirrels play with peanut shells” doesn’t make since because claws would not play and the detail of being delicate is unnecessary.

    Overall, I want to read more (despite being personally turned off by mentions of church).

    • Thanks for reading, Lindsay! I really appreciate your thoughtful response and will consider revising. As I mentioned, I just finished the novel and need all the help I can get in terms of editing. If you do indeed want to read more, Chapters 1 through 8 (I believe) are posted under “The Novel” heading on the right toolbar on the homepage of the blog. I would really like to hear your thoughts on the second chapter, as it departs from the first in every conceivable way. Again, thank you so much for reading!


  2. Pingback: To Write (A Novel) « Milk and Honey 2009

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