Valcour Island

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson

Forgive me. I can tell you now. There is sweet relief in telling. I write to you continuously in my mind. It is in my mind I see you. Towering and irresistible. For me it has all become irresistible. Forgive the days, the months of silence. The distance I’ve put between us. As a child it was said I was distant. Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m childish now. I’ve returned to where I spent my childhood summers. To the ledge rock and the rock face. To the mantle of the earth called Valcour Island. Once the island was an inland sea. Its waters were ocean waters. Pristine and glacial. Now only a lake remains of the sea. And the swamp-like place we call the bog. It’s early spring. The nights are cold. My thoughts at night are unremitting. I imagine sloping hills with long descents, a vast expanse, a river tinged yellow. I imagine Nomad families in their dwellings. This was my family’s summer house, the only house on the south shore of the island. We used to come here in early summer to stay the season. The lake shore is muddy with pools of water. The pools are formed from the rising lake water. My thoughts rise and fall with the lake. There is sometimes the sensation I am lifting upward on my thoughts, the way that birds lift upward on their wings, and I am among them although not one of them. And we know that birds are symbols of the soul, the spirit. Sometimes it is more the sense of falling. But falling upward. I sit hugging my knees, wrapped in a blanket. From the window I can see the moon, a clear space all around it. Beneath it trees. A deer approaches the trees in the moonlight. Its movements are ghost-like and graceful. It is walking hesitant, as if on tip-toe. Foraging. I have the sense of being on the island not as it is now, but as it was then. When the earth was not so old. When it was not so near its own extinction. I have the sense of being on the island when it was an inland sea. When there were sea cliffs and ice floes. The frozen rock surface. I can see my breath coming out from my mouth. Time has passed. There is the memory of what has been. The night’s chimera. Incorporeal beings. A lemur. All phantom things. Winged. Translucent. The night is clear; there are stars. Arcturus, pale yellow. Berenice’s hair. Dorado. Draco. I imagine rooms I’ve never been in. Beasts hang from rafters. A bear. A mountain antelope. Their fur is old, their mouths are open. Beneath them is a man in prayer. I remember my own prayers, my childhood hymns. He trusted in God that He would deliver him, Let Him deliver him, If he trusted in Him.It is night. Night. An occurrence of night. The moon has shifted its position. It is higher now. The deer has gone. No longer foraging. And only sound provides a passage for my senses, the creaking and the moaning of the house. And only touch provides a passage for my senses, a sudden silky brushing against my flesh.

There is a light that is white like an otherworldly light and it passes in front of my eyes. A shift in focus puts it there.

My Love, it is morning. Again, morning.

On the deck two wood wrens mating. Tiny creatures, brown and olive, seared through with bright white streaks. They are all wing beat, all posturing and gesture. The male is trying to win her. She makes him work, but not for long, in minutes they are joined and in motion, wings fluttering, bouncing, to themselves they are the world. I see a flock of geese arriving after their long migration. Returning from their days and nights in the warmlands. My attention is drawn to them by their honking. Hundreds stretch across the sky above the white birch without leaves. The bark is pale. The ice storms ripped off branches. The scars still visible. The trees, too, with their feelings. I catch my reflection in the mirror, catch a glimpse of me through dust piled thick upon the glass. And I am there behind the dust. Reflected. The glass darkened by time. And I imagine what the soul might look like if I could seeitreflected. Purplish-white. Unformed. Imagined. There is the spawning urge of the soul. As it sets off on its lonely journey. And then our bodies entwined with our eyes staring. There is something that I see out of the corner of my eye. But when I turn full towards it, it disappears. Now I feel the bones of my hands, my fingers. I was skittish as a child. Called to meals in the kitchen. Breakfast laid out on the table. A morning feast. My mother cooking and smoking. I was dreamy then, preferring dreams. Pretending I had wings, that I could fly and see the people small now down below. My rapprochement with the world. This thing that I see out of the corner of my eye is spirited like whirling leaves. Like rushing rivers, torrents of water, wind making me weightless. It is depthless like the sky with clouds. Massive and voluptuous against the stark, clear blue. It is movement and sensation. Sentience. It invites me to the sunken land. It is luring me down to the bog.

And I follow.

Sundews sparkle near the bog’s ingress, the tanglefoots: small carnivores growing from the peat moss, their sticky tentacles reaching. Peat moss forms the floor over the cold, acidic waters. Marsh plants grow from the waters. The peat moss is soft and entangling. I am possessed by a desire to step out on the bog surface, on the buoyed mat, the floating floor above the waters.

I step out, stepping lightly, mindful of the weak spots, mindful that my feet, my legs, might suddenly crash through. I feel the first sensation of the bog floor floating. I am tilting, struggling for balance, looking for a stalk of a plant to hold on to.

I step out on the floor of the bog the way I once stepped out on the dance floor. I used to love to dance with you. Our bodies floating on the dance floor. I used to think I had you in my spell. I used to think we were the product of alchemists.

I step out on the floor of the bog, knowing full well the danger, just inches below me the freezing water. The water at its deepest now, after all the melting snows. And at its coldest too. I test each patch of soggy ground. Cautious not to fall through.

I would like to say we danced the tango, but it was not the tango, it was simply slow music playing that did not require much from us. We talked about Venice. I said it was beautiful. You agreed it was beautiful—hauntingly beautiful in winter. We ran breathless into the square of San Marco. Startling the pigeons. I said I was cold. You gave me your coat. I said you would freeze. You said you were burning up. The snow is damp in Venice. Mists creep in. The mist was so thick we had trouble finding our way back to the hotel. We had taken a wrong turn. We passed between the columns on the Molo. The place of the public executions. The display of corpses. The blood-stained pillars. Later in Harry’s Bar drinking Tizianos. Champagne stained red by grenadine.

I gather my memories to me. And think how life and death are discontinuous. The measure of the distance between them. The breadth. The range and reach. The width. The girth. The order of the magnitude of that which separates the two. The green of your eyes. The sweep of your lead on the dance floor.

but it is the woods that gathersme now.
the forest.
the oaks, the maples, the birches, the tamaracks.
the blossoms breaking.

Mother, I say and no one answers. My heart is pounding against my chest. Sudden laughter. My body shakes. And then the laughter and the shaking stop.

A few steps beyond the ingress of the bog, I see a baby marsh bird perched in front of me on the branch of a hawthorn tree. I put my finger out, and the baby bird, confused, hops on. And for just a moment I feel lightness. The shivery lightness of the bird’s touch. Its delicate claws cling to my finger as though my finger is a branch. And the bird’s heart is beating.

Beneath me the mossy surface, beneathitthe waters. A body was once taken from these waters, centuries old, and yet intact, the flesh preserved on the bones, the expression on the face exactly as it had been when it formed that one last time. There is a mummifying power in these waters. Overhead the sound of an airplane. It makes me breathless to hear it, the sound of the low flying plane. And I am touched by icy air, the sensation of cold, a ruffling chill, needles. Behind me the stump of a young birch. Birdcalls. The drone of insects. The voices, the urgings and warnings. And just ahead the lagg zone, clear of trees, where the water lies immediately below the surface, where the floor of the bog must give way. Fish swim in the lagg zone. Alive and safe in their element. The way life continues, will continue. With late summer suppers. The tables dressed in damask. Drinking wine in a rare old glass. Everyone talking about how hot the summer is and someone is saying they like the heat. But then the heat becomes unbearable. There is dancing after supper. It is Venetian music playing; delicate, but passionate. And the tolling bell of the Marangona. The admonition of the Venetians not to walk between the columns on the Molo. And the evening bell of the Angelus ringing over the Death Lagoon. Song sparrows, savanna sparrows, yellow-throated warblers, palm warblers. The birds lift in slow motion. And for a minute the sensation that I, too, am lifting. But then the water seeps up through the peat moss and bites at my feet. The sun streaks the surface of the water. The light is clear and limpid. The water creeps around my ankles. There are caves beneath the waters of the Island. As a child I went diving in the caves. My diving fins like fish fins. And I gliding and swimming. The way life continues, will continue. Now it is cold—I have dragged my blanket with me. It is uneven and ragged like a cloth unraveling, ancient and worn, chewed through by animals, picked at and pulled apart with the threads hanging, the colors garish. I expect a vision, ecstasy, or terror. Or sounds, sound, the ritual sound. Clashing like cymbals, or timpani. I expect God to appear timeless and immaculate. And to fill the world with enormity. Perhaps I’ll find my mother wandering, un-aged by time, with her long thin face, my face is like hers. I imagine her in motion, like the tendrils of a cloud, shape shifting, racing along in the slant of the wind over great mansions, earth-caverns. Perhaps she isthe vision, the ecstasy. I am in the semidarkness. Light like twilight. Rain is again threatening. I am in the ambuscade. There is no one who will speak. Speak for me. The sound of an owl. Mournful. Portentous. A moss-back turtle swimming in the water. The attendant nearness of rain. And the desire. Before the rain comes. To make a mad dash back to the house. But I have the sensation of leadenness, of being made of lead. A terrible difficulty of breath. The sensation that I am being dogged, prowled, stalked, trolled, shadowed, beset, hunted. I have never seen the sky so somber, the light so lurid. I have never heard the earth so silent, so taciturn. The water seeping through the peat moss. The sedge-mat riving. And beneath me the bog floor opening. The icy engulfment of the water. And the slow of slow motion. The lifting and descending. The ascending and subsiding. I am in the dream at the moment of finishing. Inside the diamond darkness.

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson is the author of the novel The Absent, the novella Insect Dreams, and the chapbook Kafka At Rudolf Steiner’s. She is currently writing a book of lyric prose exploring speculative autobiography and the female Adam.

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