1. MY LIFE HAS GOTTEN so unpleasant that I have to write it down. I’ve learned that nothing makes a bit of sense to me unless I write about it, like I’m getting old and can’t remember things or can’t see straight until it’s all spelled out in front of me. But that’s ridiculous; I’m only seventeen. It’s also not a matter of remembering. While writing, it’s as if I’m not in thoughts at all, not in my mind, but in another kind of language, something visceral, the heart or stomach where the wanting hides. It’s from another country where my feelings paint themselves in patterns made of line and color, images that fall in place like pictures. Words go down like Mamma Amy taught me. I can see them settling inside my head. I can’t explain it but to say that writing is my thinking, or my feeling now, and given how my life is turning out, I’m going to need to write a while before I understand.
- This morning I was up to milk the goats, and saw the sunrise. The sky was full of streaks of red. It’s been dry this summer, but lately rain has come each afternoon. It falls all night, and then by morning, if I’m up to see it, dawn seems caught deciding if it’s going to rain or shine. September’s almost here, the time of year that can’t make up its mind. This morning while I milked the goats, I saw the soggy clouds and sky all red and peach in places. It reminded me of Mamma Amy. She died six months ago, and I’m so sad it’s all that I can do to keep from crying. She’s the only mother I have ever known.
- I’m not the only son adopted in this family. Daddy Bob and Mamma Amy were infertile, one or both of them, and they devised a plan to adopt a boy from every ethnic group. I don’t know why. Eventually they found a boy from Asia, India, Mexico, and Africa. I’m the one from Africa, by way of Alabama, though, a hundred and fifty years from when my forebears came as slaves. Sing is Chinese. Pablo is from Mexico. Uday is Indian. These are my brothers. I am the oldest. Now that Mamma Amy isn’t here, we’re all confused together, only they don’t know it yet. There’s something wrong with Daddy Bob, and I’m the one who’s figuring it out. That’s why I’m writing this. It helps me see, or feel, things clearly.
- Mamma Amy taught me how to read the dictionary. I read it like a novel, but that doesn’t mean I start at A and read in order to the end. I open it to any word and read the definition and especially the etymology. Each word is like a story in itself with histories and meanings. I love to see what words still mean and what they used to mean. It’s like a family tree of all the people on the earth and how the tribes have trickled down to nothing but a word or two in someone else’s speech. I say the English “curfew” and I think about how it’s from French, couvre-feu, and means to “cover fire.” And when I say it I can feel the word go in my brain and grow there like a gene for being French. I don’t have any blood that’s French, but I say “cover fire,” “lights out,” “curfew,” and genes inside the syllables are instantly implanted in me like the memories of people I could never be descended from. I say it, “cover fire,” and the words are like my secret password. They’re the words that mean the most to me. They spell exactly how I feel held back, kept in beyond midnight, the rules, the life and order I have never chosen. It was put upon me. Curfew is my life, my life of never knowing who I really am. I’ve whispered “cover fire” so much that it’s as if the words are sewn inside the lining of the garments of my heart.
- Daddy Bob has bought a herd of goats today. He hauled them in a trailer from Paducah. He bought these goats to start a business selling kosher goat meat to the Muslims down in Nashville, Tennessee. The meat will be in packages with Bible verses printed on them. He says it’s going to be his way of ministering to “towel heads,” but I think it’s just another one of his dumb business plans. There’s something funny, though, about these goats he bought.
I milk the Nubians at dawn and then at night. But now, each time I make a noise, the kosher goats produce a croaking, choking sound down in their throats and fall down like they’re dead. The vet came out and figured out that, somehow, Daddy Bob had ended up with fainting goats, that he’d been snookered. Now he’s mad because he doesn’t know if Muslims go for kosher fainting goat. A dog barks, and they hit the ground as if they’d had a heart attack.
- My natural daddy was in jail when I was born, and now he’s dead. I never met him. My mamma was on drugs, and she’s dead, too. Auntie Clarice in Alabama took me as a baby. She knew a white man there who helped her move me here. She tells me she was doing what she could to get me out of all that mess. She says that if I’d stayed there I would not have ever had a chance. I guess she’s right. My Mamma Amy taught us all at home. She taught us how to read and write until she died. I loved my Mamma Amy. The only problem with her was that she was a health food nut. She’d grown up Seventh-day Adventist, and she fed us things she’d bought at some Adventist grocery store in town. Adventists don’t eat meat. Daddy Bob called her the Christian dietitian. She grew wheat grass sprouts in hundreds of those plastic trays she got from Wal-Mart. When the grass was seven inches tall she cut and ground it up to get the juice that’s in the grass. It smells like a skunk, but she would make us drink it every day. And once a month she gave us all a wheat grass enema to purify our blood, to get the toxins out, she said. We also had to eat flax oil, fish oil, enzyme tablets, vitamins, and de-worm cleanses once a year. I sure don’t miss all that about her, but I haven’t felt too well since she’s been gone.
Dear Auntie Clarice,
I’ve got to tell you something. I’m upset about my life right now, and I can’t talk to Daddy Bob at all; he doesn’t listen to me. Whenever anyone is talking to him you can tell he’s only thinking of what he’s going to tell you next, and, usually, he says it right before the person even finishes his sentence. In church he says the creed ahead of everybody else as if he thinks he’s leading them or that he’s extra special. Things are very different here since Mamma Amy died. I miss her awfully bad.
But Daddy Bob was hardly sad at all about her dying. That’s when I started noticing that something wasn’t right. It’s like he didn’t care, or like she wasn’t ever even there at all before. For years I’d notice how he’d drive to church and sit there with an empty look. She’d ask him something from the passenger seat and he would barely answer. I noticed, but I never thought about it.
A couple of weeks ago he left us with a woman from the church, and he was gone for days and days. He didn’t say what he was doing. He’s a businessman, he says. When Mamma Amy died he had a plan to market wine to churches for communion. He would visit churches and explain that once upon a time all Christians used real wine but that a man named Mr. Welch convinced the world that serving wine in church was sinful, that they ought to use his special grape juice. So Daddy Bob has got this plan to make nonalcoholic wine and sell it to the churches so that they’ll be truer to the Bible, so he says. That’s how he thinks he’ll sell it, saying that it’s wine but with the bad stuff taken out, like decaf coffee.
So when he left that time we thought it was another business trip. (He still hasn’t sold any.) But while he was away he said the Lord God put a burden on his heart to witness to the dancers at a kind of bar in Louisville that’s called the Booby Trap. He met a woman there named Candy. She’s just twenty-five, wears lots of make-up, and her clothes are much too tight and short. Daddy Bob told us that actually they ministered to each other pretty well, so he asked her to marry him. He offered her a “wholesome” place to live, (with us!) and especially a new life in the Lord. She took it, but she’s not like a mamma, not to me. Sometimes she’ll look at me in funny ways that I don’t like. I wonder what she’s thinking. When I’m near her I feel scared of something, as if she might try ministering to me.
Auntie, Daddy Bob and the preacher at our church believe that we must choose salvation for ourselves. They say the greatest thing God gives us is the freedom of the will to choose which way we are to go, to heaven or to hell. But I have chosen nothing in my life. I didn’t choose these people, and certainly I didn’t choose this Candy woman. Sing, Uday, and Pablo, they don’t like her either, but they like to look at her. They’re wondering if she is going to give them wheat grass enemas like a mamma should.
I know that you were trying to help me not end up like my real parents when you sent me to these people. I cannot begrudge you that, but I’ve begun to ask some questions about most everything around me. I don’t think that I believe free will exists the way they teach it here in church. I think that God is in control of everything, and I don’t really like it much. But that’s just how it is. I’m certainly not in control of anything. Right now I cannot understand my life. Why am I supposed to be with these strange people? I’ve realized that I am not like them at all. My skin is dark like yours. I have your blood, but I’m not “black folks” either. I don’t know what I am.
I finished all my high school work when Mamma Amy was alive, so now I need to take the GED. I need to get this done so I can go to college. College is what Mamma Amy told me I should do. She used to say that I would be a good professor since I like to read and write. She always said this in a whisper so that Daddy Bob would never hear. He is upset about the evils of “secular humanism,” but I can tell he doesn’t know the meaning of the words. Before she married Daddy Bob, she was a French instructor in a high school somewhere. Daddy Bob says that he saved her from all that. He’ll never help me now. I don’t know what I need to do. He never did a thing about our home-school work, and now I don’t know when it’s going to happen. Uday is so smart it doesn’t matter much. He has another year of high school left. But Sing and Pablo are only fourteen. Do you think that I should get them in the county school?
Now, Auntie, what I’m mainly writing you about is that I know I’ll have to leave here soon, and either I will have to find out who I am before I leave, or I will have to leave to find out who I am. If I do leave, can I come there and stay with you a while? Except for Daddy Bob and his new concubine, you’re all the family I have now. I’ll miss my brothers, but now that Mamma Amy is dead I feel set free. I hope that you are doing well. I love your letters. Please write soon.
- Sing, my brother who was born in China, has become a fisherman. He says he wants to be a bass pro. And he could. Since he was seven he could catch most anything he wanted. He saved his money and bought a rod and reel. It cost a hundred dollars. Mamma Amy helped him, actually. He lives to see Bill Dance on TV catching bass. A man at church has taken him out on the lake most every week the weather is good. They use a trolling motor and a sonar thing that shows them where the fish are hiding and how deep they are. When I go fishing I just use a pole and cork with worms. I catch a lot of brim and blue gills mostly. I don’t want to be a pro at anything. It’s too expensive.
- Daddy Bob is passionate about collecting vintage Volvo cars. He has a pasture full of them. They’re mostly wrecks, but when he needs a part he goes out there and pulls it off. My job in summer is to mow between the cars. He’s got them up on cinder blocks, so I go up and down the rows and keep the weeds and briars down. The snakes get bad in there. One time a rattlesnake struck pretty close to Daddy Bob. He told me it was Satan. We sometimes let the goats in there to eat the grass. I’d never noticed how ugly it is until today. There are farms all around us here, but we have rusty Volvos with our fainting goats up on them eating blackberry vines. Today I said “Bang,” real loud and they all dropped dead.
- Uday is a genius, or at least he has a kind of high intelligence. I think he’ll make a scientist, at least a bottle-rocket scientist. That’s what I call him. I don’t know where he gets it. He’ll come up with crazy things to try in the microwave. He figured out that he could slice a white grape down the middle longitudinally and leave a tiny piece of peel uncut on the back side. Then he folded it out like a butterfly and put it on a plate in the microwave with the cut faces pointing down. Then he shut the door, turned on the microwave, and, amazingly, huge flames came flying out of that little hinge of grape peel between the two halves. How so much fire can come from such a little thing is unbelievable, but I’ve seen it myself. I whispered, “cover fire.”
Another time he took a big dill pickle and stuck two table forks into it, both forks facing the same direction, and plugged the handles of the forks directly into a 110-volt wall outlet. I waited for the house to burn right down, but it did not. Uday just said to turn off all the lights, and when we did that pickle was glowing. He cooks his hotdogs like that, too. Right now he’s trying to design an engine that can run on vinegar and baking soda. He’s made one prototype and blew up one of Daddy Bob’s old Volvos. That was the end of that.
My favorite science trick of Uday’s is the big potato canon made of PVC pipe. He uses it to shoot potatoes several hundred yards. He’s working on explosive potatoes now. Not really potatoes. It’s a tennis ball that’s filled with diesel fuel and nitro fertilizer. I’m afraid of this one.
- Daddy Bob and Candy have a lot of fights. One night I saw her running out of the house in tears. She had her nightgown on. I’d been outside on the porch when she came running out all bleary-faced. She saw me and stopped dead still a second, and then she went on out barefoot in the grass. There wasn’t any light by then; I couldn’t see her, and I didn’t want to meddle so I let her go without a word. It’s not my business. She is not a mamma, not to me.
I see her close more often now, and lately when she isn’t wearing any makeup her face is clean and clear. She’s blond and soft all over, sweet-looking even, like her name, like a glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut. But she’s still making me afraid, afraid of something that’s inside of me that wasn’t ever there before. It’s as if her being here has sliced me open, like how Uday cuts his grapes and folds them out. It’s as if she’s a microwave that just might set a part of me on fire between the two halves of the grape. I’m afraid of what will happen. I have got to find a way to get away from her. It’s a fire I’ve got to cover up, because if I cannot it’s going to flame up everywhere.
I got your letter, and it made me so upset. I’m so sad about this man who sposed to be your father on this earth. I sent you up there to get you away from that kind of sin and destruction. So I grieve to see it catching up to you even out there in the middle of nowhere.
You stay away from that woman, you hear. She bad news, Blaise. I can smell bad news a long way off. Sho you can come stay with me, but you got to stay up there until you get your GED. You got to finish that. Then maybe you can go to college down here. I know some people that works at Samford. They could help you get in.
Oh, Blaise, you got to trust me that I love you, and that I did what I did when you was just a baby to protect you, to give you a better life. Mr. McKnight knew those people who wanted to adopt a little black baby boy. Blaise, don’t hardly nobody want to do that, so I took it as the will of God. And I still believe that. God don’t ever let me down. He rough me up sometimes. He get my attention in a hard way, but he good to me, Blaise, and he got a reason why you with them crazy white folks.
It’s like the Israelites when they got called to Egypt. It was God protecting them from starving. But then they ended up as slaves there, so God set them free. He going to get you out of that mess, too.
Don’t worry son, you right you can’t decide your life. They ain’t no freedom like people say. We just think we got it, but when Jesus healed that lame boy, he didn’t say, “Be healed.” He said, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.” That means you got to act on what you know God is doing out of his love for you. You got to keep walking, son. You just got to deal with what comes and trust God.
You got a good heart, Blaise. You a good boy. I always knew it. I could tell it when you was just a baby. I knew you would grow up right. But I had to help you stay out of trouble, Blaise. God didn’t send you up there to Kentucky to be with that Daddy Bob. It was Amy you was sposed to be with there. I can see it now. Well, you learned what you could, and you learned a awful lot. You a smart boy. I can tell it how you write them letters with words I gots to look up. But maybe now it’s time to come home. God’s gonna set you free.
I’m gonna pray hard, Blaise. I’m gonna ask God to strengthen your heart. And you pray too. Ask God to keep you from the strange woman, from her stolen bread, from her secret water. You stay strong, son. It won’t be long now.
- Uday is only fourteen, but he tells me there is something scientists call entropy, about how things are always falling out of order, the atoms and the molecules of everything that won’t behave or stay the way they should. Uday is a genius. He thinks about how things should work, but I just think about the things and what they’re called. I also think that there’s an entropy in everything, but mainly in a person’s heart, like in the Garden of Eden when we started messing up. We had the freedom then, and look at what we chose. I think that there is freedom of the will; the problem is that we can never choose correctly. We just choose the wrong, or from the wrong intentions. Original sin is just another way to talk of entropy. The world is always going to hell. There never was a golden age. The future isn’t brighter. I guess that’s why I like to think about the past. The present isn’t anything that gives me joy. At least the past is all laid out to see.
- Pablo is learning how to drive our family’s Ford Econoline. He’s going up and down the driveway quietly while Daddy Bob is inside on the new computer so he doesn’t know what Pablo is doing and won’t. Daddy Bob spends all his time on email, writing long important letters to some people that he’s never met. He talks about them all the time as if they were his family. Then Candy tries to get his attention by walking near him with her bathrobe barely tied in front, but he will not look up.
I read about history, especially biographies of famous people. I have noticed that biographies are made of letters people wrote each other. It’s a written history of their thoughts, and that’s what makes the past alive. All history is made of people caught in certain times, but with the same emotions. I know Daddy Bob will never be a famous person, but even if he did get famous selling nonalcoholic wine to churches or kosher fainting goat, there’d never be a biography written of him because he never writes a letter. He sends emails to people, then he never prints them out. There’s never any record of it, and on top of that I bet that what they’re saying isn’t very interesting.
My Mamma Amy taught me how to see the histories and sounds of words. Before she married Daddy Bob she’d studied French and Latin. She taught me how to love the sounds of words in poetry. She used to sing me this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson:
Of Speckled eggs the birdie sings,
And nests among the trees;
The sailor sings of ropes and things
In ships upon the seas.
The children sing in far Japan,
The children sing in Spain;
The organ with the organ man
Is singing in the rain.
Most people think that he was just a novelist. But I think he was also one of the best poets that ever wrote in English. His novels are so good because he moved his syllables together like a song. That’s what I heard when Mamma Amy sang. Now that she’s gone, I never hear the words around the house the way I used to. I can feel that words are dying here. I hear the whirring and the burping sounds in Daddy Bob’s computer. I hear Candy turn the water on to take a shower. Outside, I hear how Pablo is practicing the clutch and shifting. He says he wants to be a racecar driver when he’s grown. He works with Daddy Bob on Volvos, and he’s good at that. But I don’t see him learning words. I see him learning things without reflecting on their names. It’s as if the world of things is taking over the world of words.
- It’s now September and I’m sad on account of the changing feeling in the air. It always makes me feel things that are not exactly there but seem real to me. My Mamma Amy used to tell me I was making it up, but I was not. She said that my imagination carries me away. But I don’t think imagination is a knack of making up what isn’t there. It’s seeing what most other people never see. Imagination is forever pointing out the obvious. I think of stories of knights in England, sled dog trails in the Yukon, of pirate ships. Right now it’s early fall, and the first few leaves are sifting down; it’s always black walnuts, hackberries, and willows that lose them first it seems. The fescue grass is changing color, almost getting more intense, as if the ground is heaving nutrients up into the stems while every other growing thing is fading. I feel this surging, or I’m caught between the two, time going down in the ground and something vital coming out of the ground. Between the two I feel alive and sad at the same time.
Today it’s as if I can’t quite tell which one will win in me; my life is caught between two things, two motions, life and death. I want to leave here. That’s what Auntie Clarice is wanting me to do. But I can’t leave my brothers. It’s possible they wouldn’t care, but I would care. The four of us are caught up in this whirlpool of confusing times.
I wonder what my culture is. What makes a person part of his community? I wonder what the culture was that made this Candy woman who she is. I watch her, how she looks at Daddy Bob, how she’s upset at him, how she’s forever wanting something out of him she’s never going to get.
I wonder if Sing had stayed in China, would he still have tried to be a fisherman. Would Uday have become a scientist in India? Would Pablo be entranced by racing engines if he’d stayed in Mexico? What would I be today if I had stayed in Bessemer, Alabama? What would I be if all my people hadn’t come from Africa? Would I be living in a hut and contemplating words and things like I do now?
The sun is going down. It’s getting chilly. Fall is on its way.
- Our house is an army officers’ barracks structure from some base that got closed down. Somebody moved it here and added on. It doesn’t feel like anybody else’s house I’ve ever been in. Several times I’ve been to eat with people from the church, and every time I do I feel so comfortable, as if the floors and walls and rooms were written in the house design like sentences that make a kind of sense.
Our house is a crazy quilt of add-on rooms, like a sentence that forgot to have a subject or a verb. It’s only been since Mamma Amy died that I can see it clearly. It’s as if she taught me how to read so well that I can read a house as much as a book. And once I started reading houses, I also read the roads and towns. And here I go with entropy again, but it just seems to me the world of architecture has no grammar any more.
I’ve learned to recognize the buildings from before the nineteen forties, how most everything built after that is not the same, from being in a broken language of design. The older buildings are a kind of poetry that tried to save their space and focus upwards. But the newer architecture is a kind of shapeless prose that floods along the ground and spreads and covers what is in its way. It takes the farms and turns them into fields of houses for the white folks in the city who don’t want to live where all the poor black people live. I find that when I read this broken language it makes me sick. It makes me feel that I do not belong here in this world or time, that this America where my ancestors came as slaves does not have any culture that makes sense to me. Perhaps it used to, when the city people were the city people and the country people were the country people. But today it’s all been blended up. It may have been a melting pot, but like a soup we made without a recipe at all. I do not like the taste of it. We’re defined by what we’ve thrown away instead of what we have to offer.
When I see the ugly buildings in the city; when I see the field of Volvos and the fainting goats; when I see Daddy Bob up late at night looking at dirty pictures on the internet, I think that I would like to move to Africa and be a monk like the saint that Mamma Amy taught us about. I think I need to be a monk because when Candy looks at me and has her lips apart, and when I see her nipples poking through her nightgown I imagine cutting the grape of her until the piece of flesh between the halves of her has caught on fire. And if I did it I would never stop. I feel the fire all through me, and I try to say “cover fire,” but it doesn’t help. I need to leave. I know it more than I know anything.
- Today I have received a sign from God. It was like how the ancient Greeks and Romans thought that birds revealed the fortunes of the mortals on the ground. Today is Sunday so we went to church. We rode in Daddy Bob’s Econoline, his pride and joy. He drove of course, and Candy sat beside him in the front. That’s when the sign came down. But actually there were two. The first sign happened as we started on the highway.
There must have been somebody shooting pistols in the woods. We never heard the shots, but idiots like that will sometimes shoot a round straight up in the air. It never comes straight down but lands instead a half a mile away or more. Well, as we drove along, the bullet someone shot this morning fell straight down and hit our van. It hit the roof directly over Daddy Bob, cut through, and struck the seat between his thighs. He looked up there and saw the hole above his crotch, and said that looking through the hole was like a pin hole camera he once made when he was young. He said that even though the sun was up and bright he saw the stars there through the hole as if had been night. I’ve never heard him talk that way before. And Candy looked at him with wonder in her eyes, as if he must have talked to her that way when he first met her at the Booby Trap.
The second sign came down a minute later. Just around a curve in the road we saw a road-kill carcass in our lane; it was just a possum or a rabbit, and there must have been a dozen buzzards on it. Daddy Bob was going fifty-five so he couldn’t have reacted fast enough. I saw the buzzards start to scatter. One of them was flapping wildly, trying to get airborne. It headed towards us. I heard Candy saying, “Shit!” and then it hit the windshield right in front of her. The buzzard smashed right through the glass and landed in her lap. The glass went everywhere. The buzzard wasn’t dead yet, either, and it shrieked and flapped its bloody wings all over her. The smell of rotten road-kill and of buzzard blood was terrible. Poor Candy went completely crazy. We had to drive back home, and Daddy Bob sprayed everybody down with the hose, especially Candy who was yelling. She has been in her bed for hours now just sobbing and shivering.
It was all a sign, I know it, but I don’t know what it means.
Dear Auntie Clarice,
I have some things to tell you. Daddy Bob is on a business trip. He’s selling wine to churches somewhere. He’s been gone a week. But Candy didn’t go. She had a nervous breakdown, and she stays in bed. She moans and whimpers. I don’t know what I should do. We bring her food but she’s not eating much.
The school year started up in town a month ago, and Sing, Uday, and Pablo needed schooling. I drove them into town and signed them up. The county people said they’d work the details out, what grade to put them in and all. They’re doing fine so far.
Auntie, a couple of weeks ago I took the GED exam and failed it. There were things I didn’t know, the math and science. So I’ll study up and try again, but Auntie, I don’t think that Daddy Bob is coming back. The county turned our power off. We have the well to flush the toilet and to take a bath so we can manage, though. Auntie, I don’t think that I can leave my brothers now. It’s like we’re all one person. We’re a single story. We’re the same confusion glued together in a history that’s happening in front of me. I can’t abandon them, at least not until they’re also ready to be on their own. There’s Candy, too. We’re taking care of her and showing her the love that Mamma Amy gave to us.
I thank you for your prayers. I thank you for your love. I know that God has reasons for the mess I’m in. But reasons don’t make sense to me. I see the world of things, the things that I can measure. I can touch the world in front of me, but everything is still controlled by what I cannot see. The world that isn’t there defines the one that is. You talked about my heart, and, Auntie, sometimes I wish I didn’t have a heart or feelings, that I could simply see the reasons of the world around me. But my heart has reasons that the world of sense will never understand. And what it understands right now is that I have to help these people. I must obey this voice. And, Auntie, even though I’m so unhappy now, I listen to my heart and hear it tell me I should have more gratitude, to be at peace with where I am, or that, “this, too, shall pass,” that if I act apart from how things seem to be I’ll just upset the plan. The reason of the heart says, “faith is hope in things unseen.”
So I will stay here for a while. I’ve started working for a local farmer, feeding cows and baling hay. I’ll wait on the Lord. When he decides to lead me out I’ll do like what you said. I’ll rise, take up my pallet, and walk.
- I have found my calling. Daddy Bob was gone about a month when the sheriff came out here to say his body had been found. He’d drowned. The property will go to Candy now. She isn’t well but getting better. I went in there one time to bring her food and stayed to look around. I figured that was fine since Daddy Bob was dead. I found his piles of dirty magazines and other things I didn’t understand. We burned it all outside. I also looked in Mamma Amy’s chest of drawers and found her diary. It was a sin to read it, but I did, and found out everything that wasn’t right about her marriage, things I never would have guessed that Daddy Bob had done to her.
And this is how I found my calling. In her journal there were entries from when she was very young, in high school even. One of them has changed my life and given me a mission. She wrote that after high school she went on a trip to France with other students at her school. They traveled all around, but one place meant the most to her. They’d gone to some small city called Tournus in Burgundy, a place that still has one of the best preserved and prettiest Romanesque chapels in France. It’s called Saint Philibert Abbey. The day they visited, there happened to be a group of teenage Catholic students there. Three of them were playing guitar and violin. The others were just praying extemporaneously. Mamma Amy wrote that it was electrifying. Even the German tourists were quiet. They probably couldn’t help themselves because the music and the praying voices passed right through the columns as easily as if they’d passed through everybody’s hearts. The music swirled around the aisles like little eddies of invisible wind. She found herself caught frozen near a wall of stone just looking up at windows called a clerestory where the light was pouring in at angles.
She said that it was like experiencing what Jesus meant about how even the stones would cry. But also what affected her so powerfully about the place was that it was still being used in keeping with its founding almost two millennia before the Roman Catholic Church existed as we know it now.
It showed her how far back her Christian faith had gone. The praying teenagers made the building and its history alive to her. And reading through her journal made me feel it too. I want to build a copy of it, stone by stone. So that’s my mission. It’ll be my monastery like the one I read about in Africa. I’ve sold the Volvos in the field. A wrecker came a week ago and started hauling off the cars.
I’ll find some way to go to see that chapel in Tournus. I’ll take a lot of pictures, and I’ll measure everything and spend my life to build it here. I want to make a building that will lift a person’s heart the way it did for Mamma Amy. I want to make a space where people can walk in and feel the language of the place make sense with how it’s used. I want to recreate what Mamma Amy saw and wrote about because I know that every day she ever looked at me there must have been a shaft of that sunlight in France that angled from her eyes and lit the floors of me.
When I am done and people walk in there, they’ll see it too. They’ll have it built inside their hearts. It will be fire that they will never want to cover. No, and I will not say “cover fire” again. From now on I’ll be lighting fires because of how those windows in my Mamma Amy’s history are forever flooding me with light.
This story was selected for Best of the Small Presses 2009.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.