AS A CHILD I HAD A NEUROTICISM that I’ve since lost: I liked to unknot. On long afternoons between the end of school and sleep, I’d pull my mother’s sewing box out from beneath the shadow of the bed and turn out the bright cloud of tangled thread and skeins of yarn (the tangled threat and skeins of yearn) I found there. The great clot that filled the box was woven from every string ever used for every sewing project ever attempted, every button reaffixed, every seam mended, every pattern embroidered, and a glittering of needles, still attached, shone throughout. Painstakingly and obsessively, I would work one line at a time loose from the others, follow one color or one thickness as it wound through the inmost snarl, now visible, now submerged. With each slip, each untwist that opened the mass and released it smooth, I loosed myself. I breathed. As I untangled, I had the sensation that my eyes and hands were also untwirling, that a gyre was widening between them, as if they were two poles of my soul separated by an entire globe. Without the constant vigilance of oversight, the interminable looking of life, my fingers were free to feel their own way forward. My eyes relaxed like wax before a flame. And I could learn and relearn, learn and relearn, that soft unfocused gaze turned away, that listening with the eyes so integral to making art—reverie.
Regardless of the peace given by the action, however, the ritual demanded that I throw everything back in the box when I was done, just as convoluted as I had found it. This way the whole exercise could be replayed another day; the knot could reform and be reborn. Child though I was, I already understood that the depth of any devotion is measured by its repetition.
The other day I found, among the saint cards at a church store, one for Nuestra Señora Desatanudos, Our Lady Undoer of Knots. The pantheon of the blessed is my favorite part of Catholicism—the divine as a function of the multitude. I had never heard of this Mary before, which is why I bought her. In the painting on the card she stands in the air flanked by a pair of childlike angels. Like other Marys, she avoids the eye of her beholder. At first glance it seems as if she has taken the extra step of closing her eyes completely against our regard, but the more I look at her closed face, the surer I become that her eyes are not shut, just downcast, intent upon the action of her hands.
She holds a long ribbon that falls from one side in a waiting line of knots and from the other in a white line of nothing. The knotted and the unknotted are in the past, however. The now of the painting is at the center of the line: a knot she has just begun to work. Like a magician, this Mary holds up her compromised knot of loosened integrity and shows us the eye of emptiness around which the slackened line still spins and twists. Though if we look closer, we see that her gaze does not end with her working hands at all. It threads the aperture revealed at the knot’s core; it pierces its weakened armature; it passes through this door of her own making.
On the other side of the card are the words for you to pray to this Mary. The prayer is an invitation for you, her supplicant, to place the line of your neck into her cool hands, allow her fingers to relax your ravelings and unbind you. I’ll be honest: the prayer frightens me a little in what it asks for. I can understand the hunger to be untied like a knot, that one might even long for it. And yet, doesn’t a knot only exist as a verb of the thread?
Isn’t it true (isn’t she showing us?) that a knot, once undone, is nothing?
In ballet class they were always chiding us to not allow the difficulty of the act to be expressed in the hands. Hands, we were reminded over and over, should be a boneless arrangement of fingers, soft as blossoms. In fact, they said, all the common indicators of distress should be veiled: the eyes, the mouth, the neck. And yet the assumption that the veil they were teaching us to maintain was a facade, a way to make the work appear easy for our audience, would be wrong. We girls were being taught the art of concealing art, ars est celare artem, the method wherein obfuscation becomes a weft to gird the warp of technique. Each little dancer with her tiny movements begins to knot a net around herself, her self that will thereafter be read only in glimpses—a muscle breaking the surface of the skin, then submerging; the sharp intake of breath between measures; a line delicately forging understanding, then reversing back into the tangle; a color so true it momentarily gapes into passage. The hands were only the first lesson.
A Mary is the opposite, though. The only place in her body you can ever read any intention at all is in her hands.
It always pained me that I didn’t love la Virgencita. It felt like a failing that through all the years that reverence was assumed, prayers recited in chorus, pilgrimages shared, I continued to dislike her face, how she was always slightly turning away, how she never looked at me. She made me feel like a child before a mother who had no time for her. Her famed love seemed as thin and unwarming as winter sunshine, leaving me as cold as I had always been.
The myth of perfection is that it will inspire love. But the paradox is that for all our unceasing reaching, it refuses to be. Love in the end rises only when bidden, whether that imperative is intentional or not. And perfection, smooth and sheer as a virgin’s cheek, allows for no attachment, no response.
When my son was so small that he required constant vigilance to keep him from harm, I was mystified by the extreme exhaustion I would feel at the end of each day of watching him. The way large vistas or the open sea widen looking into gazing, his sweet face seemed always to defy my eyes. Despite my deep, instinctual regard for him, there was a counterforce equal to my intentions, one that kept pulling me over and over into unfocus. Exhaustion was the inevitable product of such constant repetition, being suddenly reeled out of reverie by the insistent pull of my child’s needs, then once again slipping free. And yet, the true mystery I was to discover: the monotony of this crankling repetition was filigreed with wonder. One never knew from one moment to the next where its silver needle would rise, only to just as quickly dive, called back to the other side.
The questions I was always trying to untangle in those days were: Was it physically possible for a mother to regard her child perpetually? And was unbroken regard the same as whole love? And did I love him less because I couldn’t keep from floating away? Or more because he was the one who had drawn my dreaming up into the everyday?
In elementary school we went on a field trip to visit a classmate’s father who was an ornithologist. The ornithologist had only one working hand. The other had been bitten by a water snake when he was a young man, and the poison had caused all the fingers to die and fall off.
Because I was so small, I knew no better and could not stop staring at that hand. The way the mound under the missing fingers was curled into the palm by scar tissue so that it looked like a skin mitten, a muscle knot. The way he held that hand close to his body, resting on the bottom rung of his ribs. The way he would cup his unhurt hand over the bitten one when holding one of the goldfinches caught in the nets he’d strung between the trees. The golden birds flew straight into his knotted walls and fell like fruit, rained like blessings down into their folds. Even a child could see that the damage had created a delicacy of touch the rest of us could not re-create with our two whole hands. Even a child could see the tenderness of the bitten palm.
I do not remember even one thing he taught us about the goldfinches that day. I do remember what his hand taught me, though, how it said, as it moved so easily among the winged, what is the gift and what is the curse will never separate, will always intertwine, will knot.
When I finished my first book, I thought, on to the next. I thought the lines I had written before would just continue naturally, that I had only to follow them through to another book and another and so on and so on, sailing along on my own efficacy in a direction I dictated without deviation. Amen.
But then nothing came.
Nothing of any worth, nothing worth saying.
Nothing, that is, except for a made-up word. So I took a blank notebook and wrote that word along its spine. I could not fill the notebook with other words related to this word, because I could not catch any others. So I just drew in that notebook, and eventually I put it away and forgot about it.
But then, laboriously, back-breakingly, I learned, if you have nothing,
not [a] thing,
you still have the word, nothing. You still have the directive of the word, nothing.
Not thing, not [a] thing. Start there. At the not, which is also of course an is, as any specific lack is. Any not can become a verb, can be twisted around itself to form a knot.
A knot, also known as a place at which the work begins.
A knot whose plural is a net.
A net that can be spread so that a blessing may be caught.
The word I had caught and then forgotten was aparture. It is a word that binds together several other words. It is a tangle of apart and departure, but also aperture, the process of opening, or the opening of what is involved or intricate, and the space through which light passes, and armature, as in the underlying structure or framework of something abstract, a mental or spiritual defense, a protection or a weaponry, and a thing that provides the strength to undertake. All these strands twisted together to wend a definition only glimpsed through writing this. The meaning of aparture after all these years being the discipline, the repeated action, of loosening or untying complications, tangles, snarls, ravels, knots.
Once I was at a reading by a famous poet equally famous for delivering impenetrable and impassive readings, but at this one she changed the game on us. My job at the time was to organize such events, but this was the first one I’d ever attended where, when I looked around me in the middle of her performance, I could find not one distracted face, not one averted gaze. We were all inclined forward, listening. Breathing, but perfunctorily. Afterward, at dinner, this poet was as sharp and cold and closed as her reputation presaged. Even at a table of the likeminded she refused to open to us; she denied us any intimacy. Sitting next to her, I felt small enough to misunderstand the devotion of listening as transactional, to want something in return for my regard. I had forgotten that her song, like any other, has no eyes. It cannot see me. It has nothing to give besides itself.
At the end of the night when she rose to go, our table of women poets all instinctually stood for her. Women don’t usually do this; we’re not trained to. It was an involuntary response, a collective recognition, however small, of the toll that her sharing must have exacted on her.
In my ear, pecado, the Spanish word for sin, lies so close to picado—bitten, perforated, holey—that I’ve always imagined sin as a tiny mouthful gone, a series of minuscule but permanent lessenings. Yet if each of these trespasses is infinitesimal, then so must be their absolution. I forget the balance that a minor act of reverence holds against my own peccadillos: cynicism at the machinations of ambition, resentment over the laureates of others, bitterness, jealousy. As if the love that listens to another’s song is something I could divert or withhold in pettiness or righteousness. As if everything I’ve ever written is not also a prayer to be seen. As if I am not also part of that clamor, that incessant reaching, another blade in the field. As if I’ve forgotten that the brush of eyes across me tastes like nothing, loosens nothing. As if I’ve forgotten that the blessing is in the action of untying, not in being untied. As if I do not see that the proof that I am forgiven for forgetting this is in the reminding, the reminding, the reminding.
The first Mary who ever moved me did not miraculously appear on a shroud in Tepeyác; she is not hanging on a necklace or painted two stories tall on the curving plaster walls of my abuela’s staircase; she is not clothed in serene blue or crowned in delicate gold; she is not borne aloft by angels or framed by clouds. She is on the first floor of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, carved so roughly out of dark wood that you can see the chisel strokes of the hands that worked her. This Mary wears a deep cowl that covers most of her face, and when you draw close and look up underneath its edge there is not even the suggestion of her features beneath. It’s just a knotty mass of gouged wood, because this Mary has no eyes.
On the pedestal beneath her feet it is written that she is at the funeral procession of her son. Two aspects of her person corroborate this: Her left hand, clamped down by the right, from which just one finger flutters, pushing against the palm of her better judgment, yearning toward him whose body is passing in front of her. And her chin, for though it is roughly carved, you still see that it is holding back the grief of an entire soul.
When I was in high school, every one in our art class would get a subway token and entrance fee to go to the Met to draw. And every time I would find this Mary and sit with her. She remains, even now, the only Mary who has deigned to show me her real face. I still have those notebooks I filled with drawings of her chin, and always, now and forever, in any piece of art, I look for such proof. The illusion must have a fault (as in a weakness, not a mistake) or it has no value. A complication or it has no heft. A knot or it is not.
In high school, when I would sleep over at the house of my best friend the year after her little brother was killed, if I got up to go to the bathroom, I would have to walk by the kitchen where her mother sat at the table alone, drinking in total darkness. She would sit in blackness, staring into the distance before her, the only light the silver glints of her eyes. When I walked by, she would turn her head to a point just beside me and begin talking.
The articulation of her thoughts never began with a beginning. It was clear that the thread of her voice had only just become audible when I walked into her field of vision. I could never disentangle myself from the gravity of her grief, and I was so weak in the face of its force that I did not even try. So I would sit next to her for a while, listening to the convoluted repetition of her thoughts, until inevitably the talk would begin circling the boy who took her own boy from her, loop around to her son’s death, and twist into her wish for the other boy’s death too.
Yes, I was afraid, sitting there in the middle of the night, listening to my friend’s mother calmly unspool plans to commit murder. But I was equally afraid of the magnificence of her suffering. How I could not look at it directly. How I could not comprehend its finality or its infinity.
I should probably assure you that those plans never came to pass. The other boy is still alive. I’ve heard he has a son of his own. And, older now myself, I can better understand that mother trembling on the precipice of grief. I do not think she actually believed that the symmetry of an eye for an eye, a death for a death, would save her. Who does? And yet, that eye, the tracing of that thought, the voicing of that death, is sometimes the only thing that shines at night. And yet, there may be times, mercy, when you must violently cast any line you can toward the life you have been so violently cast out of. And yet, I see now that while she was whispering those plans, while she was spinning that murder, she was at the same time threading her own eye, desperately sewing herself back to life.
It is the end of summer. It is almost evening. I am upstairs sitting at the edge of a bed with the windows open. There are other people in the house, but they are all downstairs.
There was an explosive argument, a phone call informing me of an illness, and I have retreated. There are two windows on perpendicular walls of the room, so sounds come in from two directions and tangle with each other as they hallow the space. I say sounds, but the only sound that rises above the almost negative swishing lushness of the heavy summer leaves is the deafening call of the insects, their repetitions, which we call songs.
I read somewhere that crickets late in the season no longer sing for any particular thing, like a mate. They sing just to sing. And the less hope they have, the more complex and evocative their song. Why, sitting upstairs in my room, preoccupied with other things, do I hear this evolution as beauty and this beauty as sadness? Why does it intensify the yearning I feel to know that they sing as they turn away? After all, the song has loosened itself, freed itself from transaction; it exists only for itself; it has slipped the relentless quid pro quo of life.
The answer is, I feel this way because their song is a gift given through recusal. I feel this way because such a song is a benediction; through the loss that gave it rise, it grows along its living, twisted path until alone it fulfills itself, alone it achieves itself. It is a benediction for the stranger who hears it, the stranger who catches it, the stranger who recognizes it (as in re-knew, returned to knowing, always knew, looped the knowing around itself and drew the thread through). How do you do the work of recognizing such a song of songs, you ask? This is how: by the way it makes you instantly aware of a lack in yourself, an instantaneous aperture, a wholeness no more, though you did not know it just a second before.
Mother Mary, to whom we present the knots of our selves to be untied for ever and ever amen, is written on the underside of her image. Mother Mary who listens to our song through her eyes. Mother Mary who is herself a knot, a complication of hands that move toward intimacy, eyes that exist already in objectivity.
The prayer is written as an invitation for you to join in reciting. It is a chorus. A current always unrolling, unspooling, curling around itself, returning to itself, that one may enter at any time. And by writing it I place, I replace, this weaving, this winding, at your feet to be untied, loosened, returned—this love, this center around which we spin. This knot that is not, as we are always assuming, an end.
Header image: Mourning Virgin from a Crucifixion Group, 1450–75. Touraine, France. Walnut with traces of paint. 56 x 17½ x 14½ inches. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chloe Garcia Roberts is the author of The Reveal (Noemi) and translator of several books from the Spanish and Chinese. She is deputy editor at Harvard Review and lives outside Boston.