Large Black Landscape

Large Black Landscape, 1946, Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985) © Tate, London 2016

It is black. Black and rearing up; rounded points, pointy points. Black and matted together; plates and plains, lines and radiant circles. Black on black. Black on black on black.

____

Is this a mountain? Mountains? Is this the ocean—all those rearing points, that shifting? We don’t know. It wasn’t the point to know, but rather the point to move, to pick-up, to start over. We have come here, the whole lot of us. Oliver and Martha, Martin and Beth, the two Marys, Angeline alone. There are more than that. Some people go by their last names. The Caswells, the Burkes. Some people have appellations. We have a Good Doctor, an Old Mother, a Little Captain. The children are the worst for that sort of thing. Sometime between going and coming it seems they have renamed themselves. They pass through quickly, assuredly, like swallows swooping over a river, barely skimming its surface with their claws—all but the littlest ones, who stand in the black gardens and practice moving their feet. Sometimes they straighten up and lift their hands into the air. Their hair lifts off their heads as if they are underwater and around them are black cabbages, black carrot tops, the black fence, black fields with a black road bisecting, blackbirds bobbing up and down on the springy black branches of the cherry trees.

____

We have meetings. In the barn where there is the good smell of hay and of the cow’s hay-ey dung. Where the rafters lace through the black of the roof just exactly like fingers, like the game the children play where they interlace their hands. Oliver speaks, then one of the Marys. We should keep bees. We should keep geese for eggs and protection. Already we have learned to build fences, sole shoes, mat felt out of the long black wool from our flock of black sheep and our big, bell-horned ram. “We must think to the future,” says the Good Doctor. “We must protect the solidarity of the group.” Already we have separated into little curds, each with his or her own specialty skill: to teach, to stitch, to reap, to raise. This is not the vision of the future we had intended. We imagined a renaissance, some leisure time, spring. Instead we dip candles alongside the black road as if we were in an exhibition. Tallow spatters our hands. Our cheeks feel stiff and waxy, and underneath the thin film we are sure they are buzzing a hectic red. Today the children are all named Walter. There is one very young girl who dances by squatting down to the ground and springing up, hands in the air. She dances in the garden, in the sheep pen, by the well, in the barn. There is no music. “Whose is that one?” asks the Little Captain. 

“Her name is Walter,” say the children. Then they are out the barn door, so quickly, across the black field, up to the top of the nearest black hill where tiny flowers bloom at the ends of long, springy stalks. Walter is too small to keep up with them and stops at the barn door, puts her fingers in her mouth. She is before language. She has no need of language. The meeting goes on and on. What people say rises to the black roof beams and hovers there; it folds its wings and dives down to beat just above our heads.

____

This week, Angeline is the cook. She is mad for eggs, just dotty. We have eggs scrambled and set, eggs fried and poached, eggs jiggling raw in tiny china cups; thousand-year eggs, eggs as large as a man’s wool hat, eggs so small they could float perfectly centered in the tight black pupils of our eyes. Next week, it will be Old Mother’s turn to cook. She favors greens, things with the dirt whacked off. Perhaps it will be a nice change of pace, but to be honest our stomachs have turned. According to our stomachs, there is no such time as next week. According to our stomachs, the world is a luminous egg—a hard cool radiant shell with nothing inside but glop. Angeline sets a steaming omelet before us. She arranges a delicate plate of deviled eggs, each topped by a snip of black parsley. Angeline beams. While she works she rubs the back of a wooden spoon on Walter’s head to make her hair stand up, to make her laugh.

____

A long time ago, many of us were avid readers. Others kept up with the news via hand-held devices that whirred and clacked. One of us made paintings by layering color after color then scraping his nails down the canvass. One of us was a meticulous bureaucrat, a filler-in of boxes, a sealer of lives. 

Was our catalyst fear of consequence or that there was nowhere left to go? Did he use his nails on the canvas or a special sort of tool shaped like a heron with a blue glass eye? The radiant circles become spirals or muddy junkets; they leap up into spires, stout country churches, crossroads, wire coops, the scritchity-scratch of trees. 

We brought our own cats, chickens, mules, sacks of seed. We brought our own children, our great-grandmother’s kettle-black pots. All was meant in good faith. No one begrudges the Marys; no one suspects the Good Doctor, though his eyes are rheumy and the skin around his nostrils yellow and thick. Angeline is growing swollen and secretive. She stands by the well pulling up black water that she dips from the pail with a black metal ladle. Walter pulls up Angeline’s shirt and rests her head on her stomach, which is as hard and sour and swollen as a peony just before bloom. They make a pretty picture: the sweet black water swaying in the ladle, the child’s face beneath her fringe of floating hair. We keep an eye on Oliver and Martin, on the applicable Caswells and Burkes, but none of them falter as they stride through the yard. None of them twist the axe as they hack black firewood or fumble with the knife as they slide it under the skins of the black rabbits and turn them out of their fur. It is Angeline Alone who sips water from the ladle. Angeline Alone who laces her fingers below her belly and rocks it back and forth.

Meanwhile, what if this actually is the ocean after all? What if all around us are schools of fat, black tuna, above us nets of matted algae, below us the drift and suck of empty black mud? The children climb the hill and come down again. They bring us songbirds’ eggs, baby mice. They bring us a snarl of barbwire looped around the long slim bone of a leg. They bring us their empty hands—black hands, we notice—and let us hold them, stroking the small fingers with our own.

____

We remember a house with all the windows shuttered. The air conditioner came on and stale, cool air puffed up from the floors. We remember humming, a humming in the sunset all over the hills. We remember opening the refrigerator, seeing the rows and rows of eggs, tubs of butter spread, milk in waxy cartons, berries snuggled in white plastic nests. We remember the newspaper, ink on our fingers. We remember a crooked row of buttons, coffee scalded in the pot, a rat’s-nest of doll hair strewn with tiny gems. We remember the soft warm mouth, the pricking breasts. “Ha ha ah,” the baby breathed in and out, shaking its head, latching on. We remember the lamp and the table, the bed they stood beside, the quilt, the old cat that slept on the pillow, the closed window, the dogwood tree pattering white, toothy blossoms against the sill. We remember the whirr and rundle of the electric toothbrush, the hiss of the iron, the beeping that came unexplained from inside the walls. Air flowed in and out of the house, which was dark and quiet, then light and quiet. A gray light, birds shifting heavy and wet in the branches. We remember standing by the window with the baby pointing at things. 

“A bird,” we said. “A flower. The car, a swing, daddy’s shoe, momma’s pocket. A fork, the fish, daddy’s phone, momma’s cup.” 

The air moved in and out of the house and we said and said and said these things. Then we left them all behind.

____

We have a meeting. The barn is hot, steaming. The hay smells sweet sweet sweet. There is the traditional Exchange of Babies. The Little Captain passes out milk from the nanny goat, one tin cup for everyone to share. It is probably the end of the summer. The days are long, the black grass grows high and soft. The children swim and arrow through it; the grass parts around them. We hand each other babies and hold them. We drink our milk. There is a difference between a baby and your own baby—a change in density, a shift in particular weight. A baby is soft and heavy, grumbles its mouth around in the air and gulps as pink and needful as a kitten. Your own baby is a dense, compacted star, is a thread from yourself pulled out and snarled, a hopeless tangle. Angeline holds her baby out under the arms. It kicks. It croaks. 

All the children are here—trammeled in, hostile and confined. One of them gets among the cows and shuffles beside their warm, heaving flanks. It makes the cows nervous, this child slipping now under their bellies, brushing by their milk-swollen teats. They low and low, and their sound mingles with the sound of the babies and the sound of the meeting bubbling over like a thick, sludgy soup. Old Mother is approaching with her arms held out before her, and Angeline steps away—her baby is her baby, croaking against her stomach, turning its hot, wrinkled face back and forth against her breast. 

We all take in a collective breath. Now there will be a confrontation. Now the ground will open—below us or above us?—and what boils out will be the seething black of a thousand black-backed beetles, the smothering black of a thousand black birds’ wings, the listening black of a thousand fungus horns growing up the side of a tree. Now, perhaps, we will know the shape of the story.

Instead, it starts to rain.

____

Oh darling, we call to each other. Oh darling, we call up the slope to the children who are making a barn of their own, black sticks laced together with lengths of black hemp scavenged from behind the roper’s hut. It used to be, when we wanted to know a fact, we would press certain buttons and stroke certain other buttons and that fact would rise before us, glowing with a pale blue light. We could feel that light reflected in our eyes. Eventually, we could feel that light shining from our eyes as if all that was inside us was illuminated by what it was that we knew. Now when we want to know a fact, we go to the barn. Sometimes all that we find are the cows, perhaps a stray chicken hovering over a clutch of hidden black eggs. Sometimes Walter is there. We ask her our questions and she dances. We learn nothing from this. She puts her fingers in her mouth.

Oh darling, we say to Walter.

Oh darling, we say to No Longer Alone.

For days and nights it has rained. The wells have all filled to their brims with black water, and the river that spurts and spills from the hillside has swollen over its banks and washes away our black piers, our black dories, our floating black rafts and their black rock anchors, our black fishing tackle, our long black rods. 

“Is this a state of emergency?” the Little Captain asks Walter. “Is this an unprecedented event?” 

Walter dances.

No Longer Alone does not ask Walter anything, but she often comes to the barn with her baby and they sit there together, watching the rain. The hay rises up around them. Too much hay, too sweet. They are lost in all that hay, three little buttons, three little pins leaning their heads together and nodding in agreement.

“Oh darlings,” we call to them, but they do not answer and the rain does not stop.

____

We remember waking in the morning and walking out our back doors. We remember the wren building a nest in a box of stripped electrical wire. We remember the way the walnut tree poisoned the soil around it and dropped walnuts on our heads. Here the black trees are low and unthreatening. Here the black hills roll and roll before us and the sky—how could we have forgotten the sky?—opens and closes between them like the winking palm of a hand. We remember leaving and arriving, leaving and arriving again, doing things in opposites, then sitting down at the dinner table and scraping our knives against our plates. We called out to each other, but we were too far away—one upstairs and one down, one at the sink and one in the potting shed knocking dirt from the roots of last year’s vines. We remember the baby, our baby, and how in the night we would say to it, Please

Please please please, we would say, and we would tuck our knuckle inside its soft, vaulted mouth.

The children pass through, quick as breath. The children do not need us and our coils of rope, our carefully knotted nets, the black fish buried to rot at the roots of our black stalks of springing corn. We remember the moon. We remember limes. We remember the boys playing in the street, knocking a ball back and forth across it. We remember how angry we were, how fitful, how we itched inside our skin. We remember the day we decided to leave and the day after when, to our surprise, our decision remained the same.

____

When the rain breaks, Walter goes out before all of us to stand in the streaming yard. Water splashes up around the ankles of her black boots; water heaves in the air like smoke. How did we get here? How did we come, overburdened, exhausted, to lay ourselves down on this very spot of land between the black spinney and the black mead, beside the black spring, below the black hill? Old Mother folds her hands beneath her breasts as if to cradle them. The Good Doctor lingers in the doorway and shades his eyes from the light. Angeline rocks and rocks and rocks her baby, and we all look up to where Walter is pointing high above the cleft rocks and the last black trees, high above the black clouds which still hover and tumble. High and then higher, her little finger wavering as she looks back at us, and then we all point, one by one, to the faint silver light that sways and clangs like a guttering sun or the lamp on the prow of a boat. 

“No signs of life,” others might say of us. “Nothing out there but the cold, black water.” 

Or, if they felt jolly, “Nothing to see but the sea.”

 

Sarah Blackman’s debut novel Hex was released by FC2 in the spring of 2016, and her story collection Mother Box (2013) was the winner of FC2’s 2012 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award. Most recently her prose has appeared in Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review, and the Collagist. Co-fiction editor at DIAGRAM and founding editor of Crashtest, an online magazine for high school age writers, Blackman is the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a public arts magnet school in Greenville, South Carolina, where she lives with the poet John Pursley III and their two daughters.