Attics

Tuesday’s midmorning creative writing class, and the fifteen students are clock-watching or note-taking or simply staring out the windows at the bright spring day. We’re talking about writing personal narratives and I am looking for words to describe a place inside from which such stories come. Heart. Belly. I can’t seem to think of a corporeal description that doesn’t make the class look bored or vaguely disgusted. Hearts? one young man asks. Do you mean like, love? I don’t not mean love, I want to tell him, but that isn’t the right word either. I think of other terms. Soul. Psyche. Third eye, maybe? What I want you to do, I say after awhile, is close your eyes. Some of them do that. Now, I say. Reach far back in your memories, I continue, feeling my way toward what I mean. Think about a house. Think about the darkest, most mysterious room in that house you can imagine. Like a basement, someone says. Yes, I say. A basement. Or an attic. Yes, I say again. An attic.

***

As a writer, the attic room I come back to again and again, write from and in and around and can’t seem to escape, was the one when I was sixteen. That attic was hot enough to the melt the candles out of the wine bottles that Jim, my seventeen-year-old husband, and I used to decorate the space with. Most of my memories of that time have blurred edges, shadowy corners full of spider webs and fiberglass, which are the kinds of curtains I remember in the windows that overlooked the yard of Annie Mae’s house. Annie Mae was Jim’s aunt, retired Navy, an iron-haired woman who wore blue polyester shorts and called me dear. Jim and I were living in her house because it was cheaper to rent than our own place, and it was less conspicuous, to be living with a woman they called a maiden aunt than to be living with either Jim’s family or my own. Annie Mae’s was on one of several back roads outside of Frankfort, the Kentucky capitol town. No one came out to her place much, and it was summer, too, so my nine-months pregnant belly was tucked away, hidden from view. I could really have been at the unwed mother’s home where everyone thought I was living, instead of hidden in an attic room, where I’d sleep away the afternoons with my Siamese cat.

That summer my pregnant belly was hidden from everything, even my own self. I remember my own body as if I was Alice, high on tea cakes and long-necked, looking down on myself as if from far away, from some other innocent country I no longer inhabited. Somewhere out there, beyond Annie Mae’s, driving along the streets and around the fast food joints of Frankfort,were my high school friends, still doing high school friend things like mescaline and acid, still wrapping their teenaged selves around other teenaged selves in the back seats of cars at rest stops. But their world and mine were no longer in any way familiar, each to each. One Wednesday night when Annie Mae was at prayer meeting, two of the high school friends, Raylyn and Pat, drove out and brought me a present, and we sat downstairs in Annie Mae’s living room while I opened it, a box of yellow Melmac dinnerware. I laid out all the plates and cups and saucers on the coffee table, a little train of Melmac, and Raylyn said, Now you can cook something, and we all laughed, since what we’d been cooking, just a few months back, before it was evident I was pregnant, was pot in a pan on the stove, cooking it down with liquor to a nice tasty paste you could scrape up and eat like tar. And now what? Pat and Raylyn and Jim and I all looked at each other like we’d landed from Uranus in separate rocket ships.

Most evenings, I stayed up in our attic room while Jim worked shifts at Kroger’s, coming back late with what he could steal inside his boots. Steaks. Pretty soaps. Cards that said, Hang in there, sweetheart. I stayed up in the attic late mornings, too. Slept till noon. Slept till two. Crept out of bed around three when I heard Annie Mae’s Chevy roll out of the driveway. The bed was next to the window where the fan was, and I lay there, bare legged and giant bellied, feeling the hot fan air blow across me. At the beginning of living in the attic, I’d liked it when Jim stayed home with me. I liked the times we’d fucked and I’d begged for it, him going farther and farther inside me, like he’d never been able to do before in a car seat, but I didn’t understand sex, how it worked or didn’t, even if I was huge-pregnant. He gasped into my ear and I said, Please don’t stop, and he said, It just works that way, and we lay there in the heat, looking at each other, scared, neither of us with the slightest idea what we were doing with a baby inside me, a baby moving between us.

There were two rooms in the attic, the bedroom, and another huge closet that Jim filled with boxes he’d cut and arranged, taped together, making tunnels and cardboard rooms for Damian, the cat. I loved Damian, Jim knew and I’d know someday, far more than I loved him, and Damian loved no one but me. She hid herself in the maze of cardboard until Jim left the attic, stayed hidden until she was sure I was sleeping, then crept up along my side, curled herself in the crooks of my knees or beside my swollen belly where we lay beside the window fan in the heat. I liked lying there listening to the fan pull air out of the hot room, listening to Damian purr, listening to the sound of her mouth opening wide, her yawn, then our descent, the both of us, into a numbing cavern of sleep and sleep and maybe a dream or two. I dreamed of all I was and was not, a girl who was not a woman, a woman who was not a girl, a girl more mother to a cat than to any child I was or could ever birth. Inside Annie Mae’s house was an attic, and inside the attic were paper rooms, and inside the one real room was a bed, and inside the bed was a pregnant girl and her cat, and inside the girl was a son, and inside the son was knowing, maybe more than the girl knew, that he would be sent away, adopted out, because who knew, who knew anything at all about what all of it really meant.

***

This is the story I tell, have told, tell again and again in various guises—via memoir, essays, via fiction and even the occasional poem. Like writer Dorothy Allison says, until I started pushing on my own fears, telling the stories that are hardest for me, writing about exactly the things I am most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn’t writing worth a damn. Write, I tell my students, from the places you don’t want to go. Reach into the heart, I tell myself. Reach farther back then that. Pretend heart is memory and memory is a person who will tell you the truth. Grab truth by the collar. Make it come alive. Travel with it to the difficult places you came from. The houses. The attics. The deepest, subterranean worlds of yourself.

Does there come a time where the attic-world is too dark, even for our own hearts? When does the attic become just one more closed-up space, a place where rats chase their tails and ghosts rattle the same chains, night after night? Does looking too closely and too often at darkness make you become the thing you fear most? Can an attic become a labyrinth with the thing of which you are most afraid at its center? Yourself as a snake-haired goddess. As a harpy. Maybe just self as broken- heart-of-glass. Or is fear-looking a lot simpler to describe. Maybe it’s just old hat. Or that worst of human conditions, boring as hell. The deepest subterranean world of yourself becomes stories told and retold until no one, least of all your own self, wants to hear them anymore. And yet it is to the attic I return, again and again, and not just any attic, of course, but the primordial one.

***

The attic where many of my family stories are located was in Fannie Ellen’s house. My grandmother’s. Downstairs in her house, in the fireplace in her bedroom, she burned milk cartons and chestnut burrs and coal. The coal smoldered for hours to keep us warm, but come late night the fireplace was a dark, empty mouth. At night when I was little the fireplace sent ghosts down the hall where they settled above the ticking floor furnace, then made their way upstairs to where I sometimes slept. The front rooms in the attic had beds— an iron bed in one room and a twin-sized Jenny Lind in the other. There I’d lie awake under a musty bedspread and a pile of quilts, listening to the attic at night. The ghosts there had names. The ghost of Clarence Wiley, my grandfather, was a big-bellied cigar smoker, but there were others. Hermentia George. Willy May. Nethaladia Johnson. These were the ghosts of far back ancestors I knew only by name. The attic was hot even in the winter, the coal fire’s tarry scent rising, the clank of the gas furnace sending waves of heat up there too. I kept my head beneath the layers and layers of covers, listening, frightened of the unnamed ghosts in the third attic room, the way back one.

That back room was bow ceilinged from years of rain. Sections of the particle board ceiling had fallen and hung askew, stained brown and damp to the touch by day when I pulled a chair over and climbed and touched them. The space behind them yawned open, another dark mouth. A long row of windows were covered with tacked up muslin fallen away to cracked glass and wind. Daylight showed a rack of clothes to one side, no-longer-worn dresses and coats, old scarves wrapped around the scrawny necks of hangers. Boxes were in stacks, their cardboard disintegrating, their flaps strewn open, their contents inching forward—the stray arm of a shirt, an unwound ball of yarn, yellowed and loosened pages of some book.

Ghost shadows winged and soared and dove above the attic’s disarray, their ghost voices shimmying out of the attic corners. They joined the chorus, making their titters and wishes known. Sentences from my father’s letters from the Korean War, him talking about his long-ago wounded knee, about the Mama San with whom he shared a cup of coffee as they waited for a new cease fire. His letters to my mother were there, too. No need, he said, her fears of marrying a soldier boy. He’d make her happy, he said, but her ghost voice was there, too, from my farthest back memories. How he took her a thousand miles away from home, made her mother to a child a hundred miles down inside the dark cave of her own body.

Other voices were pitched so low they were almost indistinguishable from the attic and its night sounds, the wind and trees outside that I listened to beneath my covers. Voices of dissembled crystal radios. Of rusted scissors, hairpins, thimbles, big-eyed needles, crochet hooks, buttons in a jar. Voices of The Broadman Hymnal and its sweet stories of old. First grade primers, tales of Indians and deep woods, stories of dogs and ponies and fierce black bears. Ghosts voices of recipes. Of pickle lily and apple cake and shucky beans. Of mismatched socks and worn-out steel-toe boots. Voices of metal lunch pails, miner’s head lamps, name patches for shirts for working the day shift at Standard Oil. Voices of a torn-in-half diner menu from a place called The Black Cat. Voices of deeds to land that started at the chestnut tree on the north hill, ran the length of the creek, wound around the bottom land at Bear Hollow, then went on, out to the main road that was one lane of dirt that ran five miles east. Voice of rights to a coal company to clear cut timber, to gas company rights, to electric power, rights to walk the property line to lay claim to all of it, years and years later. Voice of the coal itself, a sooty, sultry voice, a low-down voice that said, Listen, honey, I’m right over here if you can find me.

Voice after voice after voice found me where I slept, hidden but not quite safe in that attic room. Voices of ancestors that said, This, live like this. Dark voices. Lost voices. Gone voices. Ways-of-seeing the world voices. Voices so heavy with hurt they have traveled with me, beside me, always and always settling over me, settling their heavy selves atop me in my hiding place that has never been safe. Voice after ghost-voice, singing out and circling and finally, finding their home in the stories I’ve told.

***

The etymologogical history of the word attic shows its origin in classical architecture and the Attica region of Greece. There it is a description of “a small, square decorative column of the type used in a low story with the building’s main façade.” By the 1690’s, the word was applied by architects to “a low decorative façade above the main story of a building,” which became, by 1724, the term attic story. By 1807, the phrase was shortened to attic, via the French attique, which is “an upright garret under a sloping roof.” The key to this word-history for me is story. Stories told, when they are told and why, stories written and where and how. Consider the word garret, for example, and its own definition, which is “a top floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one traditionally inhabited by an artist.”

***

If my grandmother’s house doesn’t conjure the quintessential attic for you, imagine another house, one old, crumbling, a cliché of itself, with all the token gables and dormers and enough eye-like windows to defy Usher. There is an unpaintedness about the place. A naked tree or two looms, taller than the tallest turret. Lightning is perpetual in the  distance, as is fog or heavy storm clouds or stifling heat. There is a path out front that winds and unwinds through seeming acres of forest or moor or woods with things with teeth. All the world around such a house is sharp and you hurry along, seeking the door, which is hard to find in the midst of the general disarray of cast offs on the veranda. Armless mannequins. Chifforobes that won’t open. Boxes of molding books. Maps without the names of countries. But once you find the door, which is certain to be warped with time and misery, it gives way, little by little, and, once open, invites you inside with all the customary moans and hisses of ghosts. Ignore them. Hurry on up the endless flights of steps, past paintings of the dead, past the rooms with their dead children, past phantom lovers and their eternal assignations in the halls.

Find it quickly. The only place that matters, the narrowest flight of stairs, the last level up, the last door on the last hall, a place that might almost be forgotten if you hadn’t told yourself since time immemorial that this is where you belonged. It’s a place of difficult dreams and gnarly plots. A place of heart songs and somber ballads. But you open that door and it, surprisingly, opens without a hitch. Inside? A garret, small and airless. It has, if you’re lucky, a box fan in a tiny window. A kerosene heater that spits only a modicum of soot. And this. A desk in a corner. All the prerequisite pens and bottles of dark ink and maybe even a cup for bitter tea. You’re there now. You have all that you need in this particular attic, this particular writer’s world.

***

Harriet Jacobs escaped slavery by hiding in a small garret above a storeroom, an attic space nine feet long, seven feet wide. She describes “day after day, without one gleam of light,” and hearing the voices of her children on the other side of the wall, “but there was no hole, no crack, through which I could peep.” And Anne Frank, who lived with her family for two years in an attic to escape German occupation of the Netherlands, describes “a plain grey door…a steep flight of stairs…a narrow hallway…a smaller room…a windowless washroom with a sink.” Stories of heroism, of history, of unmatched courage.

There are other women, other kinds of attics. The “Yellow Wallpaper’s” wife, confined to her upstairs room for a rest cure after the birth of her child, sees “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure that seems to skulk about” behind the wallpaper. Mad Bertha Mason, looking at herself in a mirror in her attic-prison, sees a girl brushing her hair, sees a woman who is no longer a self she knows. Mrs. James, the exhausted mother in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s “Angel Over My Right Shoulder,” longs for a space of her own, two hours a month of her own time to dream. In that room she dreams of “some result from her life’s work…unity of purpose.” And there are other women, writers who dream of rooms of their own. Virginia Woolf claimed the rights of a woman to a room, to three guineas, to a room or an attic, anything with a door that closes. And Emily Brontë, I have been told, wrote by the fireplace sometimes, the kitchen filled with sisters, father, brother. She closed her eyes as she wrote and thus found an attic room in her head, a place quiet and all her own.

And some women in their attic rooms have no names at all. That woman, for example. How she climbs the steps up come early morning or later, in the cooler afternoon. How she opens the attic door, doesn’t bother to turn on any light at all. She knows her way across this room by the number of steps, by the sound this floor board makes, by the exact point her hand reaches out and touches a wall, then feels her way along until she reaches the chair where she always sits. At that point, there is a window, but she keeps the shade half drawn, preferring the suggestion only of an outside world, just enough light to see the blank pages of the notebook in her lap. This attic room is long and narrows into a darkness at the far end inside of which she can see nothing at all. She sits for awhile, breathes in, out, feeling her body go still as everything beyond this particular place falls away from her. Outside the attic everything speaks—car sounds, the clatter of dishes in a sink, the sound of her lover’s footsteps sounds, the howl of dogs in a yard outside—but here is there is only silence, here there is only a choice. The attic is full of darkness, and it has the edges of light. She picks up her pen and holds it above the page, imagining the words she can choose.

***

A great-aunt of mine on my mother’s side spent much of her life in an attic, so the family legends go. Her name was Sadie, and I have been told Sadie was odd-turned, which translates to something like mildly crazy in the vernacular I grew up with. She was badly depressed, or maybe simply out of sync enough with the world that she grew afraid of leaving her family’s attic space. I never actually met Sadie, nor have I seen photographs of her, but I have imagined her often enough that I seem to know her better than I know other women in my mother’s family. My mother, for example, suffered from an unnamed mental illness that made her fear dirt, god, love, not especially in that order. My aunts, my mother’s sisters, both disappeared gradually beneath the dark waters of their own lives. Ruby was subject to mysterious seizures, and talked often about her dreams of an unkind Holy Ghost, a ghost I believe was the double-tongued angel of sorrow, speaking sadness out of one side of her mouth, and grief out of the other, and Ruby fell between these ways of speaking and believing, never finding a voice of her own. And Ruth? Depression, loss, pungent elixir of both that she drank from deeply, finally forgetting that there was such a thing as joy. And then there was Sadie.

I have written stories and poems about Sadie in which she is a shade-like cross between Emily Dickinson, woman in white, and Bertha Mason, madness incarnate. I have written her into a draft of an unpublished novel, making her a gentle soul who loves the sound of a bell fastened to a piece of twine outside her attic window, a sound she associates with the love she’s never possessed. In some stories I’ve imagined, Sadie is a witch-woman, possessor of dark spells. She is a recluse who has simply forgotten that the world is wide and open, that there are meadows and flowers and light, the possibility of hands that touch, want, reach out. Sometimes, though I have never seen her, I have dreamed Sadie, her attic space, one with the scent of mouse droppings and herbs gathered at night from the fields, when no one is looking. Sometimes, Sadie is myself, and this is a frightening possibility.

Like Sadie, I have been wooed by moonlight and violent storms. Have loved the allure of sorrow. Have breathed it in so often, the exotic scent of ghosts, the ashes and soot scent of loss, that I have let despair replace breath, loved the sensation of smothering underneath my life of hard knocks. With my love of dark spaces—attic space, heart-space, soul-space—I have many days forgotten that light exists at all. How lovely, the coal-dust of shadows, the shuttered windows, the blinds drawn shut in the mind. I have forgotten that voice can be a hallelujah, an instrument for praise as well as keening. Have forgotten that stories can have redemptive outcomes, forgotten that narratives can be more than a long, dismal line with no glimpse of an end in sight. Ah, Sadie, ancestor, sister of suffering. At night I dream us, the two of us lying in the same bed, sharing secrets of dearth. We hold one another and in my sleep, she kisses me with her open mouth, breathing her ghost inside.

***

Lining shelves inside the attic of psychotherapist James Hillman were boxes filled with manuscripts, family photos, business documents, memorabilia, and sometimes snippets of paper bearing ideas and quotes, references, lists of books to buy. Each box was carefully labeled, says Dr. Safron Rossi, who wrote a 2012 tribute to Hillman called “From Attic, to Basement and In Between.” Rossi describes the labels for “Men’s Conferences, Alchemy, Cosmology, Mythic Figures [and beside these boxes] were red binders that contained the various essays and chapters on alchemy that James had studied through his life.” Alchemy. The transformation of matter. Base metals turned into gold or become a universal elixir. A seemingly magical process of transformation.

***

Once, after a two-year bout with cancer and its debilitating treatments, I performed a ritual on the back deck of the lake house where I lived then. The cancer was of the colon, so I’d spent those long months with humiliating pouches and adhesives and with, as a friend said in the effort to bring levity to the situation, old lady underwear to hold everything in place. Once I was back to a semblance of health after all the doctoring, I took a small paper sack full of the old lady underpants to the railing of the deck and set fire to it, all the while saying what I wanted to mean. I let go of you. I let go of you. It wasn’t the first time for such a ritual. I’d stood on a beach once and let go of a lost love by sending his name out into the waves. I’d planted a rose bush with the ashes of a beloved dog. I let go of you. Burning and ashes. Names into the wind. Is there a ritual simple enough for letting go of attic ghosts and a way of being in the world?

***

Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung derived many of his ideas from ancient Greek wisdom, including his use of the concept of the enantiodromia. Enantiodromia is a compound of two Greek words: enantios (“opposite”) and dramein (“to run;” dromas, “running”). Conceptually, enantiodromia comes from the work of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose philosophy embraced the constancy of change. Heraclitus recognized that all is flux, that nothing stays still. In turn, Jung believed that when anything of importance is devalued in our conscious life, and perishes—so runs the law—there arises a compensation in the unconscious. No psychic value can disappear without being replaced by another of equivalent intensity.

***

Things I have heard about my work as a writer: Beautiful pain. The feeling of swimming under water. A dream I wanted to leave behind. The problem is that my attic doors swing open fairly easily, and once they’re open, the darkness floods out. And all that muskiness, that damp, cumulative breath from a closed-up space? It sends a chill into an otherwise sunny and fairly cheerful room.

***

Psyche is the Greek name for breath. She is portrayed in classical art as a maiden with the wings of a butterfly. She is also a familiar allegoric story told by Roman philosopher Lucius Apuleius. Psyche, because of her beauty, incites the jealousy and envy of Venus, the goddess of love. As punishment, Venus commands that her son, the god of love, inspire Psyche with devotion to a contemptible man. Because of her beauty, the god himself falls in love with her. The god of love has wings, and he sweeps Psyche up, flies her away to a windowless attic where he visits her every night, leaving her just at the break of dawn. You must never, he says, try to see my face. Once, while the god is asleep, Psyche approaches his bedside with a lamp, and, to her amazement, she beholds the most beautiful face she has ever seen. In her excitement, a drop of hot oil falls from her lamp onto his shoulder and the god flees. She escapes the attic but wanders the earth, looking for her lover until, at last, she becomes immortal. Psyche. The human soul escaped from its attic, overcoming misfortune on her journey toward peace.

***

As I write these fragments about attics, I am almost sixty-years-old. Rode hard and hung up wet might be one way to describe me at a quick glance. As a mother who relinquished a child for adoption at such a young age I am always looking for that missing part of myself—the child sent away at birth that I have looked for ever since. I have looked for his blue eyes, his little boy cry, the milk-breath I never sniffed straight out the womb. But that is only part of the story. My heart has always been coiled tight, as far as the inheritance of hearts goes. Bitterness, it seems, is in my DNA. Take a sample of my blood in one of those little doctor vials, and you’ll see wraiths in there, waving their sad arms and struggling to get out.

The thing is, I am happier than I have ever been. Witness it. I am better than I have ever been at vistas. Show me the edge of the bright ocean and I will run toward it, my arms spread in supplication. I am more than capable of hiking for miles until I reach a summit and of standing on the flat top of the boulder, memorizing the power of distance. Sunrises, while still somewhat suspect in my repertoire, are one of the most powerful phenomena I know. All those slender fingers of light stroking my face and, yes, stroking even that thing called a soul. I believe in it, the soul. The veritable daemon of us all, boiled down to a sweet, sweet sap and poured into my cup, sipped wisely and often, late at night before I sleep, inviting the good dreams inside. Good dreams are helpful. I write about them in the pages of my journal. I pray for them to find their way into the pages of my stories, my essays, no less my memories, forever and hence forward.

***

In a corner of my first attic was an alcove covered by a length of green striped muslin where, one day, I found a box of 78 rpm records. That is my first memory of the big band leaders. Benny Goodman. Tommy Dorsey. Duke Ellington. And my favorite—Glenn Miller. Inside a thick cardboard sleeve of records was a songbook, and though my grandmother had no record player in her house, I sang the lyrics the way I heard them in my head. For a string of pearls a-la wool worth, every pearl’s a star above, wrapped in dreams, and filled with love, that old string of pearls a la Woolworth’s. The attic was jam-packed with boxes, but I sang and danced my way around them in my cutoffs and tee shirts, imagining pearls and the wide skirts of forties dresses. In one of the boxes, I once found a chipped flute, which I filled with soda pop and pretended it was champagne.

In a few years, I’d search for vintage finds in that attic. There I found the dress I wore to some childhood sing-along, cloth all lavender and drawn with hats. Or a shirt my grandfather wore once, tan and still scented with cigars. And other people’s history, too, boxes crammed full from bag day at the Mountain Mission Store. One dress, all wide-skirted and edged with scratchy lace. A fancy cowboy’s shirt, red-checked, with abalone-looking buttons. I imagine a dance hall and a lean-hipped man scratching out songs to make up as I opened box after box. Molly won’t you dance me, dance me all fine and fair. Molly won’t you dance me, dance me until the morning breaks to fire and air. One time I gave away a quilt pieced from out of those boxes, and the woman I gave it to, a red-haired writer from a fancy school up north who’d become my friend, ran her finger along the squares and said, where do you think that cloth came from, anyway? I knew the thrift-store truth, but all I said was, back then.

My grandmother wore pale pink lipstick when she went out for occasions like downtown store shopping or a meal at the curbside diner, but we were not a pearls and silk kind of family. My grandfather was a service station guy, my great grandparents were railroad workers, and we came from generations of what they called dirt farmers, meaning they raised what they ate. But there they all were in the attic that day when I was eleven. They were in the glass records with songbooks inside with photos on their fronts of ballrooms and tables with cocktails waitresses and women with cigarette holders. In another attic box, I found a set of woven, bamboo sheathes with chopsticks inside, and one of those did well enough as an improvised cigarette holder as I shimmied from box to box, my own special rendition of a dance good enough for a big, shiny floor. What were the dances back then? I asked my grandmother. Her arms were elbow deep in a sink of dishwater. Oh, I don’t know, she shrugged. I reckon some of them danced the Charleston, and it could have been a Jive. Help me with this, she said, and set me to scraping the cobs for skillet corn for our supper.

We were not a dancing kind of family, but still I found signs of other lives in that attic, and I thrived on the clues. One box held a set of romance novels, twenty five cents apiece, some of those covers risqué ones, the women with red, parted lips and off-the-shoulder blouses and the men with oiled muscled arms that gleamed. One book had corners of the pages turned down here and there, and I read passages. Her heart beat faster as his mouth touched her throat, a burning touch that made her want his hands to reach down, uncover her, as they lay together on the moonlit sand. We were not an especially affectionate family, and we were Baptists, hard shell ones for whom mouths and hands held forbidden limits, and I had never seen the ocean. I would not see it until I was nineteen and already the possessor of multiple lovers, but at eleven, burning touch and sand were to be imagined as much as cigarettes and pearls.

Another box held all kinds of vases, milk-glass ones, ruby colored ones, indigo blue ones, and in that same box, a large conch shell. It would be a dozen years before I would be familiar with the poetry of Walt Whitman, and with lines that would be some of my favorites. My own songs awaked from that hour / and with them the key / the word up from the waves / the word of the sweetest song and all songs, that strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet / (or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,) / the sea whispered me. At eleven, I had read few poems, but I moved near the window, pulled the blanket aside, let the sunlight in, and studied the streaks and striations the shell, the long ago trails and etchings that sea and sand had made so long ago. I held to my ear, listening to the beautiful sound of the sea.

Karen Salyer McElmurray writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. She is the author of the memoir Surrendered Child, and the novels Motel of the Stars and Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven. Her work has received numerous awards, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

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