Around the Bend

I. The Baptismal Door

Virginia Woolf stands on the muddy bank of the River Ouse. The river is little more than a ditch. The day before she tried to kill herself at this same spot but returned home in the evening, shivering, tired, defeated. Her husband Leonard asked why she was wet. She mumbled something, rain water spilling from her mouth. Tempted to ask more, Leonard stopped, spotting the shadows of bombs raining in her head, the Blitz lighting her weary steps upstairs, the muffled destruction of thought crumbling all around her. She went to bed without eating, an ocean sloshing inside as she tossed and turned.

Morning brings words. She presses pencil to paper in ruinous light, each sentence climbing at a slight incline like a switchback making its way up a mountainside. No longer do the sentences curl and crash in rhythmic waves. No longer does her garden grow postmodern commas, semicolons and em dashes. No longer does the poetry sparkle and blaze. Succinct thoughts. To the point. Bullet holes. Periods. Defeated, but sincere. Admissions. I feel certain that I am going mad again. Hear voices. Can’t concentrate. Can’t even write this properly. Can’t read. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me except for the certainty of your goodness. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V. One letter. A valley. A vase. A V formation. Like an arrow, she descends the stairs, leaving her love behind, a memento for the mourning, a memento mori. Out the door, down the front steps, heading south toward the rain shadows, no foot or motor traffic in sight. She stands on the muddy bank of the River Ouse. A ditch, really. Virginia Woolf. Woman. Writer. Pockets full of stones. Body full of ache. Head full of sounds. She steps down, into the cold, the cold certainty, no longer held by the buoyancy of Leonard’s goodness, into the darkness, the dark certainty, she sinks, one last explosion in an explosive age, through the door into another.

II. In the Belly of the Beast

After years of slow death at the hands of disease and intertribal warfare, the Indian Removal Act was the final humiliation. While most tribes east of the Mississippi exchanged their lands for barren ones to the west, a few tribes held out. Most of the Leni Lenape had already departed New Jersey to the Ohio River valley, before being further pushed into Oklahoma, rivulets of tears guiding their way.

Yet one small but bold band of Leni Lenape pushed east, with revenge in their hearts. They traveled through the pine barrens until they reached where land meets sea. Standing at the edge of the giant turtle, overlooking the vast grey of the Atlantic, like a great whale the size of Kishelemukong, creator of all things. Rather than create rafts to ride the back of this great beast, the band’s leader had a vision of journeying through its dark belly, undetected by the white man, silent as the muskrat, with the stored fury of the wolverine in their blood for whenever they tunneled up into the light and paid the white man back for his wrongs.

Decades passed like flash floods while the Leni Lenape impossibly tunneled beneath the ocean. Man continued his rape and destruction of the world above. Some nights the Leni Lenape could hear whales singing near the ocean bottom, howling like wolves that had traveled too far from home and could never return again. So the Leni Lenape would huddle together, raise their voices and howl with the whales until their throats were raw.

Surrounded by interminable darkness, their bodies aching from constant toil, their vengeful fires extinguished, turning their blood cold and taming their fury. The faces of their ancestors lined the walls of the black tunnel, salty tears forgiving their pain.

As the band settled down to hibernate, to never again awaken in this world, the lead digger opened a door to the white man’s world at the bottom of a river. Standing on the muddy bank of the River Ouse, their once taut, swarthy skin pruned with age and damp, nearly blanched to look like their enemy.

Reports began circulating around Sussex of a family of wild people stealing food from farmers’ fields and animal pens. Some heard them howl like wolves throughout the night as they made camp in neighboring forests.

Authorities were dispatched, excited to discover what they thought was a band of Kaspar Hausers, but a resident professor of anthropology concluded, after inspecting the now docile Indians, that they were a Native American tribe of some sort.

After attempts to communicate with the Leni Lenape, the best the professor could ascertain was that they had traveled to England in the belly of a whale. The professor grew angry at the patent absurdity and never spoke a word of it to English authorities. He told them that the Leni Lenape had fallen off the ship carrying Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show bound for New York, after the previous year’s performance for the Queen, somehow subsisting on farmer’s crops and their wits.

When word reached Queen Victoria of the presence of the Leni Lenape, she immediately sent for them to live in her palace.

In a nearly forgotten square of newsprint in The Daily Telegraph, there is a small mention of a parade of curious Londoners escorting members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to visit the Queen. No mention of the little girl with the long face and wild eyes that howled with the Leni Lenape from the balcony of her Kensington Park residence at the sky. No mention of the creative mystery the Leni Lenape’s howl stirred in her soul. Just a flat square of print. Formless. Waiting for the little girl to grow into an inventive woman that could roll, bend, and transform that flat paper into a three-dimensional, living piece of prose.

III. Making Out, 1991: The Lost Episode

Virginia Woolf spends fifty years in the belly of a whale, her body traveling down a pneumatic tube that runs beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Neither dead nor alive, she is preserved in darkness, still as a lightless lighthouse, in a state of suspended animation.

When she finally surfaces and mysteriously revivifies in the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, in the heart of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, she has not aged since her suicide. Soaked to the bone, shivering, she unloads her pockets of stones. She takes in the claustrophobic closeness of the pines. One tree looking like another, like the next, and the next. A woman could get lost and find herself in these barrens, only to lose herself again.

Virginia smiles at the morbid little thought and begins to walk in order that she may get lost and found and lost again, but mainly to stay warm.

For her, it is still 1941, the world is at war. She half expects a civil defense officer to question what she is doing, soaking wet, alone, drilling her with questions to ascertain if she is a German spy. But when she exits a pine clearing, standing in the ditch on the side of the road, she hears a giant thumping come storming up the wooded highway from a streamlined, futuristic car. The only discernable words from what she suspects is a PA system on steroids are “Bass for your face.”

Virginia falls back into the woods, shaking, deep in thought. Paranoias and insecurities rattle in their cages, singing new songs for her to sing along and destroy herself with.

Instead of traveling by road, she hikes back into the pine barrens and continues north. At least she suspects it is north, judging by the placement of the sun.

Giant passenger jets roar overhead. She watches their contrails unfurl through overlapping branches, hugging a tree to her chest, waiting for the bombs to fall, for sod to fly like shrapnel, for her limbs to be ripped from her body, for her blood to spill, to anoint the ground with the darkness that plagued her throughout life, in which she descended into over and over again like a diver in a diving bell in order to call up the most vibrant, unique creatures from the deep onto the burning pages of her books.

The sun falling behind the pinetops, an already dark forest becomes darker, mirroring the lonely depletion Virginia would feel after the completion of each of her novels. An emptiness so deep that she could not move. Her bed, a prison. Leonard, soup-stirrer and spooner. Oh, how she would have howled like the Leni Lenape in Kensington Park that day, en route to the Queen’s palace, if she could. But she remained a husk of wordlessness until she replenished, waiting to once again play parlor games, making people’s lives the way they should be rather than how they were, waiting for her voice to regain its tenacity. Although her life was a long, drawn-out howl, her writing life often growled, showing its teeth.

Before the sun completely disappeared, Virginia finds an abandoned house, ravaged by the elements, littered with No Trespassing signs. She beds down amongst its dusty detritus and ghosts, feeling like a dead character in a novel not her own—the ruins, symbols of time passing, horse-headed waves racing to their destructions beyond the walls of pines blocking the view of nearby shores, a salty mist kissing her rarely kissed lips goodnight from 1991.

IV. Autophobia

Virginia Woolf stays. She fixes up the abandoned house, plants a garden, joins a book club and begins to live uneasily in 1991. Although she always rankled at the way Victorian England treated women, and how she wanted to get out from under its shadow, she finds that fending for herself for the first time without Leonard, without anybody, proves to be exhausting. Yet it is a good weariness, a new weariness that she invites into her life. As long as she remembers to eat and get enough sleep, the wolves remain a distant echo in the background of her mind.

In town there are murmurs of another war, but it must not be much of one judging by the unworried attitudes of young men in baggy shorts and T-shirts. The only death these men face are stares from young women uninterested in their come-ons and the alcohol they consume.

At night, alone, an oil lamp burning on her makeshift kitchen table, she thinks about the unexplained distances she has traveled, the unexplained reason she is not dead. This extra life, this fast-forward to the future, feels like a gift. One that she appreciates some days, and one that she loathes on others.

Picking up a book at the library, curiosity gets the better of Virginia and she looks up the fates of her chums in the Bloomsbury Group, looks up the latter life of her beloved Leonard.

She is overwhelmed by the number of books chronicling her life. Hunkered down in the aisle, her face burns at the theories of why she was the way she still is. Never you mind the indignity of affixing her name to a play about drunks, nymphomaniacs and lunatics, and then having the audacity to ask Who’s Afraid of Her?

Instead of reading the book club’s next selection, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, on the bus ride home, she stomps off in a blue rage. She yells at passing cars, “Are you afraid of Virginia Woolf? Are you? You?”

Nobody is. They cruise by. They keep walking.

“You want to know fear? Fear is witnessing Sigmund Freud smoking a cigar as his jaw rots off his face–smell so putrid that even his beloved dog won’t sit near him! Fear is being blacklisted by Hitler! Fear is being consoled by monsters! Fear is…being a good swimmer yet drowning yourself,” she whispers, stopping at a creek, watching long grass sway and swirl beneath the water surface like strands of a dead woman’s hair.

A car full of young men honk their horn and catcall at Virginia from passenger windows, pulling her out of her reverie.

She slowly turns, upraises her middle finger with such sadness and dignity that the boys don’t even laugh and drive away.

V. The Resurrection Howl

After feeding the stray cats that visit her each morning and tending the garden they often use as a litter box, the day draws in a school of memories. Luminescent baitfish. They swim around her graceless movements, balletic, bright. Their flashes beguile Virginia Woolf’s lonely eyes. Vanessa and Clive and Strachey and always Leonard. She hunches over her kitchen table, her wrist cocked at an angle like a loaded gun and writes.

Her prose, again, travels upward at a slight incline, climbing the mountain switchbacks, rarely stopping for sightseeing. Her memories lead her down to the shore: the Atlantic, holding its breath, pretending to be dead. The tiniest waves caress the brutish land, a consoling hand at a wake. The dark hand behind the door motions her forward, invites her in. She has felt its numbness, when water chills you to nothingness, felt its blue, saw its black. But her hand continues upward, onward, climbing, one fluid motion of thought, gathering strength and speed, flooding dry riverbeds, long buried seeds sprouting wings, prose darting over the water like divebombing swallows catching mayflies, performing aerial tricks, words trailing behind like ribbons of smoke, crowds of interior voices stopping to marvel at the sight, the daring, the sparkle and blaze of the burnished sun spraying comet tails of light, hiding the dangers beneath the surface, the undercurrents, the sinkholes, the snags that will swallow a reader whole and never let them go again. One image lasting long after the words have been read, a corpse swirling in their brain, dragged up from the river bottom by hooks when life experiences overlap, commiserating with their soul: reader and writer sewn together throughout their lives, until the twilight haze evaporates: the moon, a sentinel of suffering, drowning in the long, drawn-out howls of all that have wandered too far from home to ever return again, yet who always continue on living in order to see what happens next.

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