From WTP Vol. VII #5
By Eric Maroney
“Tis too much proved—that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o’er
The devil himself.”–Shakespeare
Or sits and writes at the table and often turns her gaze toward the clouds congealing in the heat bubbling above her like a milky copula. The clouds arrive, single soldiers, but quickly close ranks, and unfurl like a wrinkled banner from horizon to horizon.
At such moments, in the closing hours of the afternoon, Or would place the pen on the pitted lacquered surface of the table and watch the clouds roll over the north of the island, their lower, back fringes blackened with shadow, as if trailing tails of shame.
And each day, the lush hill would turn a deeper shade of green, jade, emerald, and khaki. At her house pressed against the river, the overgrown trees were spaced unevenly along the road like drunk sentries, breaking ranks in a panic and spilling down the valley to entomb the ramshackle pagodas and green pools in plumes of vines and immense stands of bamboo. All objects, animate or inanimate, appeared to crest the hill only to roll down the far side as if exhausted to their vital cores.
Or remembered only with difficulty. In this place of steep hills, jagged valleys, and coves clogged with salt marsh, sustained memory was as impossible as preventing the monsoon rains. When she remembered an incident from the past, it was like a puff of smoke evicted from her forehead, floating over the mottled garden of stones near the kitchen path, revealing an image, a smell, a sound, before bursting. The notes she jotted on paper were mere invocations of what memory can suggest—a brief beat, a staggered silence, and nothing more. She did not resist. She allowed the events of the moment to tumble at her bare feet and die.
On the hall table was a mound of Arden’s notes. He wrote on all manner of scraps. This was part of Or’s evening: all day, the bicycle boys from the city delivered the messages to her house and deposited them in the foyer.
Ardent’s blocky, angular script was the perfect medium to express his failed attempts at writing monumental works: incomplete epics, scraps of a cycle of stories, a prologue for a philosophy of history, an introduction to a book on human memory, the outline of a sprawling, intergenerational family novel. Ardent sent Or the swirling detritus of his creative life. This, she knew, was an extraordinary compliment. He could not trust himself to be the guardian of his terminated children. So Ardent repurposed Or, transforming his ex-wife into both archivist and sentry.
She held a sheet to the window’s fading light and read:
CHP 1. When he was a small boy when he skinned his knee he was riding his bicycle down the wooded path of the old manor house when he heard people laughing and he turned to look and in that moment hit a horse trough and landed hard and began to cry and the girl his cousin ten years his senior rushed out and led him to the enclosed pagoda and she sat him on a step and cooed below him parting her pouting lips blasting a hiss of cool air at the wound and asked him if it felt better and when he said yes the cousin stroked his pants and snaked up his shorts pumping his tacky member and he felt a raw aching pleasure for the dark side of this act and its kin had yet to seed and sprout for this girl-woman-cousin procured her desires with an arsenal of coercion and manipulation speckled with loving often material gestures and when she became a woman she honed her art and trapped him a cousin sister mother rapist and she cast a mold he would pour and shape with everyone he was supposed to love….
“God,” Or said out loud. “One run-on sentence and no commas.”
He continued in his own voice:
I’ll see you for dinner.
If I don’t arrive by 8PM, don’t expect me.
You are my treasure.
Or settled into the chair with rosemary tea. Ardent Zonder had long called her his treasure. Eight PM arrived and departed and she was alone. Since their divorce Ardent seldom visited—she was a treasure he believed no one would steal.
He frequented the hashish saloons downtown, where he was handsomely paid to recite his poems, stories, narratives—the meat, gristle, and bones of the Old Dutch Zonder clan, founders of the city. He was wildly popular, his words tapping into a deep stream that had been misdirected for so long, his work gave the appearance that this snaking torrent was now on course.
When he and Or were still married, living downtown near the retaining wall, Ardent wrote lighthearted feuilletons for a daily paper. Then he had his breakdown/breakthrough, which sent him careening in three directions: to other women’s beds, to the end of their marriage, and to his new creative life.
He ignited the venerable history of his family into blazing words, resurrecting the trampled destiny of its lost, forlorn citizens. Ardent’s breathless recitations of the deaths, births, sins and conquests of the Zonder clan rolled out like great bolts of cloth, and was now the garment this city wore. As he rose to great heights, Ardent’s shared orbit with Or deteriorated. Their marriage was subsumed by the smoke of hash, and skirts hiked above nubile, parted knees.
When it was over, Or felt a sense of relief. She was ten year older than Ardent. In the last years of their marriage, the disparity transformed into unwieldy forms. Only when alone did she realize that with Ardent she tried build a life on the uneven terrain of his moods, manias, depressions, and mercurial excitements—only when he was gone did she know who she truly was and what she desperately needed.
A cousin offered Or a once grand, now dilapidated house on the north end of the island. She purchased it for a token yuan – to keep, the cousin said, the house in the family. The gabled mansion was remote, set upon a carved slice of a humid and overgrown slope. Here she worked hard to stitch over memory—to pry open the chasm called forgetfulness—to move forward.
Or scooped Ardent’s papers into a stack, too tired to deposit them in the “Ardent” file cabinet in her office. She looked out the door at the blue-black, night and a pair of yellow eyes stared back from the bush. Long ago, during a night of unbearable heat, she propped open the door and they walked inside. On the hard parquet floors their hoofs sounded like breaking saucers, and they deposited piles of scat in the corner of every room like a surveyor’s marks. When Or woke, she watched pale, dappled rumps and arched spines retiring from her bedroom, unhurried, for the habitations of people caused them no alarm.
Also long ago she walked to the ancient caves just beyond her property. A man, blue and unctuous with a substance like axel grease, emerged from a crag, limping toward her. He produced a waving hand, forming incomprehensible sounds through his toothless mouth. Or offered him ten yen, but he brushed it away. What do you want? She asked repeatedly. He continued to make sounds. Eventually, he grew weary and returned to the crags.
Ardent scolded her for these infractions. Doors must be closed and locked, Ardent reprimanded in his notes. Despite the trees and vines, you don’t live in the real country. You are surrounded by dangerous animals and people. You need a shot gun, Ardent wrote on. Sometimes they come in from the woods and go to homes. You need a gun. Don’t kill them! Fire above their heads. Only use proportional force. I’ll have a shotgun delivered next week and will teach you how to shoot. The shotgun never arrived. Ardent never taught her the exercise of proportional force or the fine art of discharging a firearm into the malarial sky. Nor, in all her years in the house, had any lubricated people mounted her stoop.
She lay in bed. Through the window, she heard the clanging of a barge piloting upstream, to the north, steaming in the center of the green river and into the blistering forest. Then her eyes slowly closed.
She woke to pounding. Outside a driving rain was beating a tattoo on the patio, like thousands of nails striking a field of corrugated furrows. Rising from bed, Or swung open the door.
“I forgot them all!” Ardent screamed above the rain. His gray clothes were soaked to black. He shivered in the steaming mist of the entryway like a man with palsy.
“Forgot what?” She yelled. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t remember a single poem, story, genealogy. Not one… it’s as if the Anton van Zonder and his clan never existed. They’re gone. All of them….”
And he slouched to the marble floor of the foyer and cried.
Zonders were ubiquitous. They slouched like soulless bodies, unaware of their magnificent past, and dead to their uncertain future. Anton Van Zonder had purchased the island from the aborigines in the hoary days of cold winters, bright spring days and autumnal crispness. The family had gathered power, churning out mayors, governors, constables, viceroys, chancellors, landed gentry, and lords of every stripe. Now they were crofters with little ambition – guided by narrow concerns, involved in small-time racquets, members of price fixing guilds, or factotum to petty bosses. Then Ardent appeared, unheralded, bold, fierce with pride – and the city roused, and sang a new song of their founding family, and the hazy, somnambulant dream of the past was suddenly as concrete as stone.
He sat on the patio facing the green ribbon of river, sipping mint tea, wrapped in a kimono too small for his substantial bulk. Ardent gazed at Or, red-eyed and unfocused as he spoke.
“You shouldn’t have opened the door,” he chided. “What if I was one of those people?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she answered, handing him toast. “Those grease people don’t knock on doors. They just break in!”
“Don’t be prejudicial,” he scolded primly. “Not all of them are covered in grease. Anyway, you try keeping while residing in a crack in the earth. They are closer to us than you think.”
“Why are you here, Ardent?” Or asked, nearly annoyed. “I haven’t seen you in more than two years.”
“It happened again,” he told her.
“What?” she asked.
“A breakdown,” he answered, turning his back to the river.
“I don’t understand… tell me,” she demanded. “What have you forgotten?”
“Everything,” he answered. “It was like this: four days ago I was down at the Kegel Green Bar. The place was packed. Everyone was so intent on being silent, to hear me, that there was nearly a hum in the air: a discharge of silence like a whirling fan. I was telling a story, stringing it along, part by part, bit by bit, and I felt a shutter of dread. It didn’t last long, but it was enough to rattle me. Still I continued, but with more words, the crack widened. At first it was just a hint of doubt about a word or two, no more. I continued for five, then ten minutes, thinking, this will pass. The crack widened to a gaping hole. I couldn’t leap over it. So I stopped. Everyone there, including me, especially me, were alone in their terrible, broken worlds. I’ve never been more terrified in my life. So I ran out of the bar all the way here in a monsoon.”
“That’s it?” Or asked. “You blanked out on stage? That’s the crisis?”
Ardent shook his head vigorously. “You don’t understand,” he pleaded. “When I stumbled over the words, when I stopped, it all collaped. I couldn’t remember a thing. It was back… the breakdown. I had broken down, and everything I had been reciting for years collapsing in my head with the finality of a falling brick wall.”
“You should rest,” Or told him gently, reaching out and grasping his beefy hand. “You’ve been working too hard. You don’t have a settled life. Take time away. Wander around the property. Get some sleep. It will all come back.”
“Where are the writings I’ve been sending you?”
“Safe,” Or answered. “I file them by date.”
“I want to look at them,” he demanded. “It’s important.”
“Don’t you want to rest?” Or asked. “You look terrible.”
“Or, I said it was important.”
Ardent laid every scarp he had written about the girl cousin on the floor. Or watched as he read the fragmented poems, disjointed notes, and dead-end stories, weary of his fixations—yet also anxious. Ardent and his towering manias were back in her life.
He turned toward her, his lips forming the trace of a smile.
“How about a walk around the grounds?”
Or’s land was marked with posts in some places, but more often the only things that demarcated her property were towering shrubs of feral bougainvillea in riotous bloom, and dark copses of dankly scented, tangled pitch pine. Soon they found themselves in sight of the crags that faced the river. Or sensed no hesitation in Ardent’s stride. He was about to make a revelation. He walked alongside her beyond the overgrown fissures in the hill to a small stone ringed with brambles.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“A stone in a field,” Or answered.
“Narrowly true,” Ardent replied while gazing up at the milky sky. “This stone was set here on the site where Anton Van Zunder bought this island from the natives under a tulip tree. The tree lived a few hundred years, and when it died it was replaced by a stone. It once had a tablet on it, but it’s long gone. It was all a legend anyway. None of it happened. No one remembers why anyone bought this malodourous island. Really, who remembers anything, anymore?”
“You remember things,” Or said. “Things you should well forget. All those notes and poems and tales about carnal hurt. You know, you once sang a very different song; you enjoyed the things that happened at the Zonder Estate. You treasured them. I’m quoting you here.”
“A treasure is nothing,” Ardent answered. “We think something enriches us, but it makes us poor. We create pretty stories about the past, about fondling breasts beneath verdant trees and thumping rumps on trampled dahlias. We damage each other in such places. Some remember the pain, while others forget – as if to calm their scruples. And therein lay my problem: not a single thing about the Zonder clan I recited was true. I made it all up. Every poem, genealogy, narrative. I formed it from the smoke of my breath.
“Oh, for a while, I thought it real. I’ve always been keen on self-delusion… you of all people know that! But lies slither along like snakes in brambles until they are upon you, and it is too late. That happened to me. Then I came here. Where else could I go?”
Or sat on the stone. She ran a shaking hand through her hair. Ardent touched her shoulder gently.
“Why be upset?” He asked her. “I feel relief. Now I don’t need to be haunted by a family past that is false, only a personal past that is real.”
“I feel bad, Ardent,” Or shook her head. “What can I do for you?”
“A personal favor. Something special. We need to do this together. You must say yes.”
The timeworn car was hardly in any condition for the journey to the old Zonder Estate, but Ardent insisted on its use, and Or had tendered her promise without conditions. The running boards were fastened with wire, the horn was mute, and the seats were blistered as if scorched by an open flame. They packed lightly, but Or felt a heavy permanence about the trip. Ardent demanded that all his papers be brought along, and that Or close the house as was done in times of cold and wind—so windows were sealed and shutters were bolted.
Driving slowly along the river, Or avoided divots in the dirt road. But near the caves, the car tipped into a crack, irrevocably jammed. Behind Ardent, a naked man approached.
Ardent,” Or warned, “behind you.”
Ardent turned and strode to the man. They shook hands warmly. The man was even taller and wider than Ardent. He smiled and laughed at Ardent’s words. They walked up to the car.
“This is Lyle Zonder,” Ardent told Or. “He’s a cousin. I spent time in his summer home in Pelham. He’s seen some hard times.” With that, the men hoisted the car out of the fissure. As they drove away, Ardent turned and waved. The giant held up a hand.
It was night when they reached the northern postern. A guard emerged from his shed, sleepily squinting at Or.
“Why are you heading north?” he asked.
“We’re visiting an old house,” Or answered.
“And you?” the man asked Ardent, who was asleep. The guard quickly lost interest in him.
“Do you have papers, Miss?” he asked. Or handed them to him and he lifted his dim smoky lamp to read.
“And this is you, Or Zonder? And you’re heading north? Well, can’t say what you’ll find up there. Good luck.” He waved them through and the road narrowed and darkened, and Or sped. She had no desire to delay, even though she knew what they would find. The Zonder Estate was a series of fallen columns, piles of collapsed bricks, walls standing alone in fields among impenetrable clumps of sumac, beside drooping pagodas smothered in wild sugar cane. Or knew all this. But Ardent sought to return to where he and Or, his country cousin, had played their games. He sought to find the dropped key to his recollections, retrieve the lost pearl which bound the necklace of memory. Where he touched her, and she touched him, and they drank deep from each other’s vigor. But his story was of the fall. Or, ten years older, had pilfered his pure soul. He was the casualty. He told himself this story until it was as true as his family narrative —a devolution to sin.
But Or was a Zonder as much as Ardent. She was aware of the power of the pen to craft the past, and with that command, steer toward the future. Because she was a Zonder, like Ardent – a scion of a family without memory. She was just as welcome to mold the eras of natural and human life as her cousin. If she burned Ardent’s papers in the cracked horse trough at the gate of Zonder Estate, the same place he crashed his bicycle all those years ago, flying over the massive front wheel, into the cluster of banana trees, it was her right.
Ardent, asleep in the car, cannot see the yellow and red glow of papers burning in the blackened trough. The ash bows only to turn quickly upward, toward the chalky sky. Or sits on the hood of the dented tin lizzie and takes out pen and pad.
Or is writing her own history by that flame. Her time with Ardent, as a boy and a man, untethered from words of exploitation or misuse. Or Zonder’s love for Ardent was wholesome and untrammeled—a state between two acquitted beings, bereft of past and tasting the sweetness of an everlasting moment.
Eric Maroney is the author of two books of nonfiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His mixed genre book, The Torah Sutras, was published in 2019. His short fiction has appeared in over twenty literary journals and publications. He is a regular fiction and nonfiction reviewer for Colorado Review. He works at Cornell University, and lives in the hills outside of Ithaca, NY, with his wife and two children.