Authors: William Goyen
5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Copyright Â© 1983 William Goyen
All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.
Published 2014 by Dzanc Books
A Dzanc Books r
print Series Selection
eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-941531-12-9
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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
To the Vine
The author wishes to express his gratitude to John Igo, Reginald Gibbons, and Deirdre Simone-Hill for their loving help with this work.
Portions of this novel, in different form, have appeared in
The Southwest Review, TriQuarterly
upon the picture postcard. It fell out of a book that I had not opened for years.
I had found the painting in a London museum, stood before it and remembered Uncle Ben, long gone. In the museum shop I had bought the postcard reproduction of the painting and took it for my own, as Uncle Ben took it long ago for his and lost it. I must have found it again for him.
Today I have so long gazed upon the picture, here in a faraway place, in an ancient holy city far from my own place where I first heard Uncle Ben's unexpected story and where Uncle Ben lies now in the ground with his ancestors, and mine, many who, with me, had heard his sudden story that long-ago summer night; I have today so long gazed upon that picture that I have come into a visionâan “apparition” my mother would have called itâmade of true memory and outrageous fabrication. And that is what I have to tell, what has risen up so long later from the image hidden early in my mind by Uncle Ben's story and freed by the picture postcard of the beautiful painting called
The Light of the World
July night when we were sitting in the dark hoping to get a breath of breeze, I heard my mother whisper, “There's somebody standing out in the yard.” In the flare of the heat lightning we saw a figure streaming down its whole body with hair struck full of quivering light, with hair of light streaming down to the ground and eyes as glowing as lanterns.
“Tis a visitation,” said the woman Carrie, our friend who lived with us. “The Bible tells us that word.”
“An apparition,” said my mother; and my father called it something out of the woods, drawn out of the deep woods by the light of our house. My sister said it was a big moth and it did look something like that.
But whatever the thing was, it glowed out its pale lamps of eyes at us and streamed down its lighted hair. I was not afraid but pitied it. My father cried “Ho!” and then the little dog who had been paralyzed with fear was given voice to bark, and the light of the shy visiting stranger was gone.
All night I thought the figure might be out there, darkened, its light put out by our fear. I lay awake and thought about it, about turned-away things, things not taken, things thrown back or let go, or the light in them put out by fear. At the window, on my knees, I sought the light of the beautiful visitor, wherever it was, far away in the dark woods or nearby on the sandy road that went past our house, on the black railroad tracks leading off into gloom beyond the distant house on the rise of land; or very close, right in the yellow jasmine bush that my mother's mother planted when she was a bride in this house, the sweet flowering bush of summer nighttime, just there by the windowâcould the turned-away caller, man-woman, saint-devil, comforter and disturber, be there, just at the window? My feelings were human and divine. I wanted the streaming figure to lie close to my body in my bed, touch my body which burned for touching and was so secret to meâhow much longer could I bear the secret, keep my body a secret to others, consecrated only to myself? It is said we leave homeâgo outâat the urge of our young soul; but it is just as much to break the secret of our body, in its name we go. Yet I longed for the blessed stranger to restore my soul, which seemed lost.
We had seen other mysterious strangers in the remoteness of our place. They had come to us out of the black summer nights that stung us with heat and kept us sitting up most of the night, half-drugged between sleep and waking, together in the darkness where we were each one alone, solitary sleeper each; or in the windy, starlight, spring nightsâa knocking, a shadowed face, a hand held out at the back door: a gypsy girl, dark and spiteful, a gentle beggar from the road, a hobo off the freight train that ran past our house, a drunken logger from sawmill town, and once what turned out to be an escaped woman convict run away from Huntsville Pen driven by longing to see her child in Houston. What the feeling was that they left in me, in memory, was their shyness, a giving out from them, though they were asking, and a moment of beauty. Shy beauty surrounds those times in my memory, not fear. And it seemed that for that moment, in which we gave the stranger something, there was an exchange of love, that we were visited by love, not fear. Others spoke of calling the “deputy” (whatever that was) and of putting a shotgun by the door at night.
And there once had come a daring old bearded person in the afternoon, who stood by the woodpile and looked and looked at us and did not come closer. He had come soundlessly, in an October afternoon, when apples were purple on our trees and blue smoke hung in the distances, what for, he would not answer when the question was called out to him. His look was that look I cannot describe, although I see it over and over in my memory and I have seen it a few times more, as my life has gone on, on the faces of the unexpected at that still and awesome moment of recognition. And I try, again, to tell what it was likeâthat look; that look on the face of those sudden visitors appearing before me: it was shy, it was tender, it gave radiant love, it gave union not alienation, asking, not questioning, it gave fearlessness not fear, those visitors' (they would not stay) faces, eyes, mouth, dear hair, that came before me in my life, to bring me fresh sense of life, and to go on.
Another was a sprightly figure who looked at us as though we were intruding upon him, sitting in our pomegranate tree at summer noon. When we came he looked down at us with mischief in his eye. He seemed to be at home in the pomegranate tree. He wore a curious hat with a bird's feather in it and some kind of a jacket made of faded purple satin on which something sparkling caught the bright noon sunlight. He was a sight in the pomegranate tree. While we watched him, after a long cordial, almost bemused, stare, the person descended gracefully from the tree and looking at us again straight on, with that look, went on his way. We watched him disappear on the road.
“It's the orphan boy, grown up,” someone said. “That used to live with Leota Barnes, up towards the cotton gin, but then ran away to live in the bottomlands.”
“Seems happy enough,” another said. “Sitting up in our pomegranate tree like he planted it.”
“Peculiar persons living in this part of the world,” my father said. “East Texas's a peculiar part of the world. Peopled with some peculiarities you wouldn't guess were here, coming as a surprise to people that live outsideâand even to us that live inside, sometimes. Must be the river and the riverbottoms, parts of it wild and forbidden, and the Thicket. Seeing men in ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots in town talking cattle and cottonâthat's only the way it looks; there's more than that.”
And then Uncle Ben said, quietly as if out of a dream, “Once while hunting rabbit by the dry river I come upon a person bathing itself in a pool of Trinity River. I seen it. I crouched down in the weeds and couldn't believe my eyes. At first I said it's a baptism in the river, a person's baptizing themselves, I said. And I saw it quietly washing in the river hardly making a sound except for the soft comforting sound that only rustling water makes, yet tis, too, like the sound a bird will make in the deep nighttime when you're sleeping in the woods and will lie there and hear it, almost as if tis to console you, almost like a mothering sound or of something being taken care of making it feel safe and peacefulâa peaceful sound is what it is that water makes when it's handled and picked up and tossed and breaks against flesh like the beautiful body I come upon standing knee deep in the clear spring water there at the hidden place where the river used to flow under the trees. And there I saw it slowly bending to pick up water and scatter it over its beautiful body, scattering the water and the water could have been something like sand or soft grain, the person could have been in a field; except there is nothing else in the world like spring water, is its own special thing unto itself, pure spring water, isn't it? I love spring water, love all water, and it's a wonder, too, considering how Mama almost drownded in the river and acarrying me six months inside her womb, I know the feeling water can make me have. Twas just at sundown. Twas so beautiful is all I can say. Just wish I had the words for it or had a picture of it. What I did was not to disturb the strange beautiful person, was to very quietly rise up from the high grass and go away. To let the person alone, to let the beautiful body alone. I didn't want to go. I looked back and saw, in the early twilight that was already falling, the bending and gathering and tossing figure, glistening with water, washing itself as if twas making slow dancing movements and twas only washing itself; and then twas when I saw that it twas part a man and part a woman, the man part was sweetly washing the woman part and the woman sweetly the man, the woman part baptizing the man and the man baptizing the woman. How twas so holy and how twas so flesh, the body of this being was so holy and so flesh, I was divided in two almost by my feelings from it. How it had such respect for itself and give such tenderness to itself was what hurt me so, twas like a sudden hurt in my breast to witness such tenderness, and yet I was apanting so and had all kinds of feelings that I still so sharply remember. And I turned again to go and leave the beautiful bather. And saw then, in that time of dayâtwas in early May I recollectâhow lonely it was and saw suddenly how lonely everything there was, in that time of day, the sundown, the last of Trinity River run down to just a pool, all the powerful springs that had made a long river running through the bottomlands gone down to just one trickling one, and the last bather in it, like the ghost of the lost river, like all humanity bathing together in it, all men, all women, for the last time, in Trinity River. This is what I felt, and the rustling sound of the water, the beautiful place and the peace and the sadness, that I never forgot. And there under a willow tree I found the bather's things. They were an old army officer's uniform neatly folded, and a cap, and a Bible written in Mescan, once white but now yellowed, and from that yellowed white Bible there fell out upon the ground what I took away, stole I guess because I had to have it, a picture card faded in its colors and soiled from a lot of handling. It showed gentle Jesus knocking at a door in the night and holding a burning lantern in the night and said
The Light of the World
. And I saw on the back written in a big handwriting a strange name:
. I had to have this picture and I took it with me, wish I had it now but lost it somewhere through the years, lost it, maybe when I rode on the train that time up to Crockett to see the side doctor, to have a complete physical cause of that pain kept griping me in my side, maybe on that trip was when I lost the picture, oh wish I had it now.”