January 4, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Something about the Nature of Midnight

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter 1994, Vol. XVI, No. 1

It is New Year’s Eve, 1981. Rachel Stein prepares to remember this night, to map and preserve it in a kind of invisible neural acid. Such a process must be possible. This night is a psychic embryo. It will enter the fibers of her flesh and mate with her cells. It will settle in, and she will have this film as long as she breathes. This is the substance she really required all along, something tougher than the photographs she once thought she needed. They were the fraudulence. This, on the other hand, is more deceptive and permanent.

Rachel Stein is alone with her infant whom she must soon name. It’s been three weeks since she took the baby home from the hospital in a taxicab. Her parents didn’t come to the hospital. They have decided this event has not occurred. They have no vocabulary to define it, so they have deleted it from their consciousness. She thinks it is curious, how they could drive her to airports where planes would take her to countries racked by civil wars, regions with plagues and no roads, and teenagers with automatic weapons in the trees. But they could not admit to this configuration, their daughter with the infant and no husband.

It was raining when she took her infant home in the cab. There were rules which were bent for her. She still had certain connections. She still knew how to evoke names, how to toss them into conversations like hand grenades. She wasn’t like the other unwed mothers. Her mother was a psychologist. The other unwed mothers had mothers who worked as domestics.

From her wheelchair in the rain, at the curb of the hospital, holding the infant which did not seem natural or part of her, seemed like a generic product that had been handed to her—shoes, perhaps, or eight pounds of books—she decided to reassess her perception of the other unwed mothers. At least their families arrived to escort them home. Rachel watched their departures from the lobby, how siblings offered garish oversized balloons, there were boxes of chocolates, there were grandmothers with shawls and no English and laughter.

Rachel had told her doctor that she needed to live with her daughter first. She could not simply assign a name to this small and utterly alien thing that she had somehow and inexplicably been given. What Rachel meant was that she thought this baby would communicate with her. By some mysterious process, it would let its preferences be known. It. The baby.

Now it is three weeks since that day and the baby still has no name. It has blond hair and a weak mouth which does not retain its shape. It is a hole, a black tunnel in the face, and it doesn’t seem possible that it belongs to her. It is raining incredibly hard, unusually hard. There are streaks of lightning and the almost immediate crash of thunder. There are sudden small yellow explosions on the periphery. She imagines it as a kind of perimeter strung with barbed wire. But she doesn’t bother to get up from the sofa, carry her daughter in her arms, walk to the window, look out.

Rachel doesn’t even glance at the rain because she no longer believes there can be revelations through climate. There was a part of her, once, that would, in a microsecond, amass, assemble, collate, and arrange into chronological order all the phenomena she had experienced. It never occurred to her that these events were not a form of knowledge which would provide clarity and solace. She had thought it simply a matter of time. She would decipher it, find the right angle, the source of light, where the background should be.

She viewed her life as a photographic sequence of striking and disturbed elements. She was there to snap the shot and provide a simple text. The autumn a hurricane hit the tip of Kauai. She stayed until there were no planes out. The series of gray waves were thirty feet, small cities with steeples and cathedrals breaking below the cliffs where she stood in a wind, seemingly alone. But she was there with her camera, looking them in the eye. It was the history of architecture she saw breaking at her feet.

She enjoyed dealing in fluid devastation. She considered the flood in Sonoma. They said the highway was closed and she ignored them, displayed her press card, drove to the place where the road had been and was now erased. At that edge, she watched bits of a bridge drift toward the sea, dragging its metal and cables behind it, then the pieces of houses, two golden retrievers on what had once been a second-story terrace. She shifted her camera. An entire house dropped into the river. She watched it return to its basic elements, redwood into water, glass into sand, all of it being drawn to the ocean, and it was as it should be.

Rachel had been diligent with her observations. She had courted the brutally intense. She cannot count the times she had deliberately gotten sunburned or wet, bitten by insects, been uncomfortable, caught a cold or an infection for the sake of a certain slope of cloud.

There had been the electric storm she had seen from a houseboat on Lake Powell in Utah or Arizona, the way they continued for days without a map through plazas of mesa, everything too vivid, too overly clarified. The world was opened surgically, It was misshapen, anatomical; the rocks reminded her of the striations in muscle. She had finally gotten in and the earth was an autopsy. She shot sixty rolls.

In the afternoon, she swam from the boat, and the current was sudden and fierce. She felt a gulf open beneath her feet; it was pulling her toes. It was green, the essence of all elements unleashed and untamed, and it seemed somehow musical. It contained the quality of certain strange songs, like the sequence of howls coyotes make, and she wanted to listen. There were fluid epics, she was certain. And the man she had been with that week, the man who had managed to lose the map, said he was sure she was going to drown.

Later that summer she had been rained on in the Snake River in a raft. It was some assignment about vestiges of the real West or the old West. She had eaten spoiled chili the night before. Then wind was blowing in her face, and she saw only the red baseball cap she was wearing. There was the sense of damp, bitter weeds. Everything was misted and broken, and she still took photographs. When her hand shook, she bit it. She had discovered that pain was anchoring. Sometimes it was the only way to get the job done.

There are the rains we invent, she thinks, holding the baby that looks nothing like her, the undefined infant she is supposed to name. There are the rains when we take the ordinary and minor observation and arrange the details to provide the appearance of the definitive. There is no fraud in that. It’s a kind of art. Rachel had often taken unremarkable afternoons and forced them to their edge, prying off their secret skins, leaving them naked and shuddering.

She did that in Seattle, from her hotel window in an almost autumn, shooting out across the bay and smoking marijuana. The invented rains, she thinks. Then there are the rains which find us when we are not looking, when we are quiet and ask for nothing. Or perhaps these are the rains that actually invent us. And none of it mattered, Rachel concludes. None of it made her more intelligent, competent or secure. None of it gave her the names for a baby.

In fact, Rachel Stein is beginning to doubt all the intrinsic impulses which fed her across the years, the foundations and perimeters. The idea that there is fluid revelation, that in waters wisdom accrues and can be distilled, translated, known, passed on. If you can find the one moment when light and shadow open into absolute destiny, then you can capture this in a photograph and decode the meaning of the world. You can know her camouflaged seconds, infiltrate and imprison them. You can outwit time. You can make your own fossils. You are the keeper of the amber. You can trap creatures in this and they will be perfect in five hundred million years. In between, you can tape them to walls, mount them like the heads of animals. You can hang them in galleries. It is time you are looking at. And you can hunt these images in your own season with your heart aching as you feel the world become too small, old, stripped.

Now Rachel Stein is beginning to distrust the entire subterranean strata that formed the basis of her life. That is why she ignores the rain. It’s the first rain in months in what is obviously the relentless drought condition of Southern California. It is not an aberration but the natural climate. Why don’t they simply admit this instead of announcing each year as a new drought. Now it may not rain again for decades, and she doesn’t care.

In truth, rain never cleansed her, it never purified anything. There was no clarification through water. As to the photographs yanked from the debris, you could look at them mounted in a frame like a mirror, but they didn’t speak. Rachel thinks it absurd that she could have ever thought this was a possibility. Of course, no intelligence forms in any fluid, not even vodka. The fact that she could have seriously considered this means she must distrust other fundamental concepts about herself. Then how will she ever name this infant? And if she doesn’t return the official name form tomorrow, will they take it away? Will she be charged with some sort of baby abuse? Will her friends know?

Rachel considers the implications, and it’s not just the rain. She’s noticed she doesn’t take the seat next to the window on an airplane anymore. This happened even before she was pregnant. She didn’t ask before checking in if her hotel room faced the ocean, the forest, the mountains, or lake. She doesn’t reach for her camera anymore when the pilot says they are above yet another river, another desert; they are passing over a certain monument, a trade route, a gulf. It has recently occurred to her that the ocean and desert and forest views she has accumulated, privately stalked and captured, have failed her. The canyon crossings, the arroyos with their suggestion of bobcats and owls and something green howling in an impenetrable night, tangible back, no answers, no fire, no illumination, no inscription to tell her the name of her child.

The last time she was in London, Rachel declined an afternoon in the British Museum. She has never seen the domed room where Virginia Woolf wrote, and she has become glad of this. Always before, on the day she was there, it was being restored or the season or the hour was wrong. Now Rachel wants to make certain she never sees it. She wasn’t pregnant yet when she refused to walk along the Thames, went back to her hotel alone instead, ordered a bottle of vodka, drew a line of cocaine. She dropped her camera on the chair, zipped it shut in the case, thinking that she could not accommodate another river or museum, another set of Egyptian princes and kings, more corridors of looted goods.

Rachel had once been convinced there was an irrefutable sincerity in sand and rock which long dead men had arranged with their fingers. Now it is of little interest. What did she learn from architecture? What did she learn from walking along beaches, watching one impaled sun or another splinter and spray its interior across clouds, rendering them the orange of translucent abuse, wounded and ecstatic with suffering.

Of course, all skies are archetypal and say the same thing. They have no intrinsic meaning. It is only what the observer decides, what the photographer manages to imply. How many times did she have to learn this?

Her infant cries, and she puts the baby against her breast. It slowly drinks her milk. This process is more horrible than boring, and there is nothing natural about it. The blond baby will never be mistaken for hers. People in supermarkets and airports will think she is an aunt or a friend. The baby is strange and ugly. She cannot imagine always having it with her. She cannot even bring herself to name it. How can she possess this thing?

It occurs to her that the big occasions and great events have left her stranded and empty. Bodies and bridges fallen, burned, drowned. The crash of forty-foot waves, and if it isn’t the taking of photographs, if it isn’t the click, click of I have you, your’re mine forever, then what can it possibly be?

For instance, her grandmother is dying in a sort of slow motion. If anyone wanted to say good-bye, even as a petty aside, a sort of veiled afterthought, there is time. Her grandmother has had a series of heart attacks and in between she is hospitalized for months. She watches the trees change in the parking lot below. One could pick a season, orchestrate a spring or fall farewell.

Rachel often thought of her grandmother’s impending death. She was waiting for a sign, some indication of when she should call. Rachel was the oldest grandchild, the firstborn. She waited until her daughter was born. It was December.

She walked through her house with the infant in its special crocheted blanket. She circled her house, room to room for hours. She was afraid to put the baby down. Then she called her grandmother in a hospital named for a marginal president in a section of New York City where she had never been, had seen from the highway, had not even bothered to photograph. Rachel had thought this birth, combined with the impending death, was a rare confluence in which wisdom should be transmitted.

Rachel Stein had taken her grandmother’s hospital phone number months before. It was taped to her refrigerator where it seemed the most important external elements of her life were kept: the numbers on her medical insurance cards, the telephone number of the pediatrician, the taxi company, and liquor store delivery. Rachel had to telephone numerous times. After all, she did not really know her grandmother. There had always been a continent between them. In her family, there was perpetual turmoil, small crude wars, and exiles within exile. There were inexplicable absences and raw places that could not be spoken of or touched. Names were banished, histories denied and cancelled. There was the sense that as you stood there, some bridge was being dynamited. There was smoke in your face and the constant sensation of falling.

“Are you afraid of dying?” Rachel finally asked the grandmother she barely knew.

She had only one old photograph of her grandmother, a black and white when she was an infant sitting on her grandmother’s lap. She seemed a reasonable woman in a flowered print dress, a plump woman with long hair in a bun and a weary smile. What could her grandmother have done to deserve her exile, the years when she was never mentioned? Her mother had no mother. That was what her family said. Her mother often claimed that she was actually an orphan. Her mother was fond of saying that she had given birth to herself.

“Of course, I’m afraid,” her grandmother said. Her words were heavily accented. She was smoking. The voice was hoarse.

There did not seem to be any sequence of responses which were appropriate. After awhile, Rachel said, “It’s OK. It’s human to be afraid.”

“Do I care if it’s allowed or not?” her grandmother demanded. “I’m afraid,” she repeated. “I’m afraid.”

That was their first conversation on the first afternoon when she brought her unnamed daughter home. Rachel has read a statistic that the majority of terminal patients live to their next birthday and die shortly after. Her grandmother’s birthday is in May. Rachel expects her to live until spring.

Rachel had wanted to tell her grandmother that she had given birth to a daughter. This would be her grandmother’s first great-grandchild. But Rachel stopped herself. She realized there was something horrible in it. Her grandmother was dying in a welfare hospital, alone in winter. Her daughter did not recognize her life nor impending death. Her daughter called herself an orphan. This same grandmother had given birth in another New York City hospital, without a husband. Now Rachel had borne a daughter, also in winter, also without a husband. Her mother did not speak to either of them. They had both been penalized. Of course, their circumstances were different, the intricacies, the motivation and sociology, or were they?

Now there would be one more of them and one less. And Rachel recognized this was another of the big occasions that would fail her. Its promise of ineluctable clarity would remain unfulfilled, stunted, veiled. It would become the color of winter silence, which is a strained pale like a bruise that has already partially healed. You wear it but you can’t remember why. It’s the color of hallucination.

Rachel rocked her baby. She carried the phone to the sofa. She realized this was an emotional configuration that would remain locked. It was little different from a city, flying over or landing in it, touring it by car or jeep or limousine. And if it wasn’t a city, if it wasn’t a forest or beach, a desert or jungle, if it wasn’t Thanksgiving or Passover or Memorial Day, if it wasn’t birth or death, what the hell was it? How did you find it? When you got there, how would you know? Should you take a camera? Should you take an automatic weapon, canned goods, lamps? Would you need boxes of trinkets for the natives, red beads that glittered, square pocket mirrors, and objects in brass?

Rachel had been searching for something definitive since her first photograph. She had not found it. Certainly it wasn’t graduating from the university. It wasn’t the marriages or divorces. It wasn’t the one-woman show in Los Angeles or New York. It wasn’t the first or second grant or fellowship. It wasn’t Bombay at sundown or Paris at night. Now there was her grandmother’s lingering illness. Now there was the sound of her infant daughter wailing, inhuman, in the winter night.

Her grandmother telephoned. Rachel slowly began to think of her grand mother by name, Pearl. She found she could telephone Pearl when she woke up to feed and change her baby at two and four o’clock, alone, in the California December. It was dawn then in New York. Pearl was waiting for her. She never thought to ask why this granddaughter was awake so early or so often.

Rachel would hold her daughter to her breast and dial Pearl. It was dawn and still snowing in New York. Rachel was aware that there was a complete circle of women alone in rooms in winter. Her brand new baby, who seemed to resist a name, who did not yet inhabit any of the syllables she had temporarily contrived for her. Then her dying grandmother on the other coast, more syllables without substance. These were elements of winter, sounds with the intention of becoming something, but they were not yet formed. Winter sounds were embryonic. They were condensed design that could become anything. Rachel would hold her daughter and talk to her grandmother Pearl. She thought this should be a circle that would speak, but she sensed it would not.

“I dreamed John Kennedy was making love to me,” Pearl said. “He was coming for me on a boat. He looked exactly like I remember, with the fancy overcoat on, smiling. Remember the teeth? The smile? He was reaching out to me. He was carrying flowers.”

It would be early morning in New York. Snow was falling. Rachel tried to imagine this other coast. She considers the way certain overcast evenings in the mountains are, when everything is silver and pine needles look stenciled against the slate air. They remind her of a process she suddenly remembers from first or second grade, perhaps something where one blows on ink and makes snowflakes.

In Southern California it is 3:00 A.M. She feels unfocused and bruised. She wonders if this is the beginning of what they call blue. If this were true, it might get colder. There could be unspeakable internal rearrangements. Then she telephones her grandmother. Rachel wants to tell her that she has been abandoned by her parents. She resists.

“I dreamed the building was on fire,” Pearl says. She’s been waiting for her granddaughter to call. “I break a window with my shoe. I’m young. I have high heels. No arthritis. I’m wearing silver lame with fox on the cuffs. I never had a get-up like that, believe me. Not once in my life. I look like Bette Davis. I break the window and I don’t get cut. I look out. On a ladder, a fireman is coming to save me. Then I see. He’s holding a hose in one hand and flowers in the other. I see the flowers so clearly. They’re so big. There’s nothing wrong with my eyes. I don’t even have glasses. Orchids and gardenias. That’s what he’s carrying. You know what that would cost? And you know who is coming?”

“Who?” Rachel asks.

“It’s John Kennedy,” Pearl says.

It occurs to Rachel there is a sort of quiet only a woman alone with a crying baby can know. Or a woman caught between seizures of the heart. We are all living between seizures of the heart, Rachel decides, as her baby nurses and her grandmother reveals that she has again dreamed of water and fire, boats and ladders, flames and ocean, wood and flowers. This is her grandmother’s alphabet at the end, recurrent and boldly inflamed. There are Pearl’s final photographs.

“It’s like going to the movies,” Pearl said. “I never knew so much was in my head. So many characters. So many colors. I might have done things different.”

“What would you have done differently?” she asks.

Rachel wants to know. She closes her eyes. She is prepared for enormities. She will open her mouth and receive the communion she has always and secretly longed for. She is prepared to speak in tongues and know God. She is willing to throw her cane away and walk. She is ready for the show in the tent. She is thirty-two years old and alone with an infant who has no name, and it is raining.

“Who knows? Maybe something with pictures. Something with paints,” her grandmother sounds on the verge of tears. “Are you the one with all the pictures? The pictures in magazines?”

“Yes,” Rachel says. “What else would you do over?”

Pearl is thinking. Rachel can hear her expel smoke. “I might have opened a flower shop,” she says. “I could have got the money.” Then she begins crying.

Rachel hung up the telephone. Her infant was crying. Her grandmother was crying. Two out of three is enough. There is a perfect circle of women alone in winter with their names insubstantial, women with experiences that should be engraved in flame or stone but are not. Their lives will be less than footnotes. And if it isn’t the click, if it isn’t in the frame, if it isn’t waiting in the shadow or sunlight, what is it? Not this incoherent circle that might as well be mute.

It is at moments like this, at junctures which only appear after midnight, that Rachel Stein considers the possibility that she has somehow fallen off the girders, out of the plot. She was always the careful girl. The one who got straight A’s, who never broke a bone. The girl who won the talent show. You didn’t need to tell her to practice piano, to check her math twice. She was the one with the best summer adventure, the first girl with bangs, white lipstick, and jazz albums. How was she removed from the standard story, which wrong path did she take? What could possibly have crawled in from the edge, what whispered in her ear, what incantation led her to be sent home in a taxicab in a rainstorm, alone with an infant?

She was always looking for the singular. She admits this. If it wasn’t a city or a way of touring it, of learning the language and monuments, if it wasn’t a region or season or landscape, perhaps it was a chemical, something you could ingest. That was when she had started her internal experiments, gone to the Yucatan to eat peyote, claimed she was photographing pyramids. Later, she smoked hash along the banks of the Ganges. It was about taking better photographs. It was about nuance and shadow. It was about learning how to look into rivers like they were mirrors of time, portals that dreamed in blue. Then one day she stopped asking for the window seat. It was better away from the river with its predictable rancid debris. She preferred spending the evening alone with a bottle in her hotel room.

Rachel Stein walks with her baby in nervous circles. The baby looks nothing like her. Her life has been a catalog of failed gestures, some of them matted, framed, published. There was always the sudden inspiration of rebellion and how it soured. All dawns became similar, bands of estranged grays. And eventually, she will take her baby into bed with her. They will hear the wind. She will think, there is wind and the absolute failure of everything but breath.

But now, walking in a sequence of circles, she is afraid to count their number. Rachel feels as if everything is swaying. The continent is swaying. It is inhabited by women rocking their infants to sleep. Rachel is part of an enormous midnight circle of women alone in winter. It is a time when everything is silvered and stalled. It is here women build their silent architectures with gestures that cannot be measured or repeated. They are too spontaneous and complicated. They lack the framework of intention.

The women are walking through the perimeters of their rooms, rocking infants and talking the almost dead to sleep with their loom voices. It is a world of gray congruencies, ruled by the repetition of circumstance. There are shadows and duplications that insinuate themselves into the future.

Rachel imagines all the women are waiting in midnight, standing on piers they have somehow arrived at. Many are uncertain of where they are or why. The light is oddly amber and warm. It is old light. It contains lost properties of how to assemble objects for auguries, of how to clear the lungs. A boat is coming to save you. You are absolutely certain. A great man will offer you a bouquet of silver roses, violet orchids, gardenias out of season. Here there are no shadows, only the arc cast by complexities the color of sails, rain driven. Everything is amber and manila like canvas seen by lamps in fogs.

Rachel stands at the window with her infant. She must name her. There are places where the wood sill is imperfect and the draft rushes in. The air smells singed. It must have something to do with the thunder and the fireworks, the way someone on the next street is shooting a gun. Is it possible there is sulfur between the citrus and the jasmine? Somehow, the earth has been turned.

Rachel lies in bed with her infant. She expects her grandmother to telephone, to wish her a happy New Year, but she doesn’t. Her grandmother will not telephone again. (Pearl is dead. She died before midnight. The statistics were wrong. A nurse will find her phone number on Pearl’s bedside table and telephone her early in the morning. That will be her first call on the first day of the new year.)

Rachel has come to understand something about the nature of midnight. She imagines all the silent women sorting buttons in their sewing boxes by lamplight. Can anyone believe they are really arranging them by color, that their shape is somehow arousing their interest? When the women are looking at linens, holding them in their fingers, is it possible they are really calculating their fray?

Someday a man will ask, while she kneels in a hallway, picking up towels, surveying them by wear, what are you thinking? Rachel knows this will happen. And she will answer, Nothing.

Or perhaps it will occur in an elegant Italian restaurant, festive, with miniature pink flowers in a good crystal vase. He will say, what are you thinking? And she will say, Just something about midnight in winter.

When the women seem to be exploring avenues of color at the lipstick counter, they are really considering some other spectrum entirely. It is always a night like this that they are remembering. It lacked a vocabulary even as it was happening. There were fantastic constructions. The night was etched. It had substance like metal or clay; you could pound and sculpt it. There were nuances and bridges, and then they were suddenly gone. This is what they are thinking.

And the last sound Rachel hears might be thunder or firecrackers or gunshots. It is midnight precisely. She can hear cars honking their horns through the rain. She is holding her daughter in her arms and she thinks, suddenly, that she will name her Pearl.

Outside, on a nearby hill, boys are setting off fireworks between the weeds and concrete and mud. Sparklers are tattooing the dark with electric swirls. The remnants of larger burnt configurations resembling brutal flowers are dissolving to the wet earth. They fall, leaving slow trails like dissected stars or molecules with their structures exposed, blazing conceptual skeletons.

Rachel closes her eyes and feels her bed is rocking, the entire region is rocking; it is always rocking. And somewhere men on wooden ships are bringing bouquets of rare and luminous roses the color of burning fireworks to all the women who are there, who have always been there, in the amber shadows, waiting.

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Kate Braverman has been chronicling her life in poetry, short stories, essays, and novels for thirty years. Raised on welfare in the stucco slums of Los Angeles, she studied comparative literature and anthropology and graduated from Berkeley in 1971. She was a founding member of the Venice Poetry Workshop and Women's Building. Her novel, Lithium for Medea, is currently in its fifth edition and her work has been translated into Italian, Turkish, Japanese, and French. She is married to Dr. Alan Goldstein, a research scientist in nanobiotechnology and a futurist, and they live in San Francisco.