"Field Notes" begins simply enough, with a clipped catalog of men, and then blossoms into something at once lyrical and menacing. The story accrues only gradually, the situation subtly transforming as it develops. For me, it shimmers in that space between sense and ambiguity that keeps a story humming in your skull long after you've finished reading the words.
No. 26: Sandy blond hair, in his twenties, with a red baseball cap. Grinned when I took out my notebook.
No 131: Very tall. Jean jacket and grey sweatshirt. Stopped to chat briefly. "I'm married, doll."
No. 79: In his sixties, wearing oxfords and a three-piece suit--no tie. Tipped a straw bowler. Frowned at me when I asked to see his hands, when I asked the color of his eyes.
No. 17: Big beer belly. Wore a button: "Lose weight now--ask me how."
No. 82: Red-faced with a big mustache. "What's this all about?"
No. 101: Hairy fingers clutching a plaid wool coat. "Jesus loves you, daughter."
No. 79 is back. Brought me a cup of coffee. Sits in the parking lot in his car.
No. 33: Scraggly beard and red hair. Laughed when I asked where he was on the night of September 23rd. "I gotta ask my wife!"
No. 64: Mid-forties. Didn't walk toward the factory, but went out to the street. Had a cocker spaniel on a leash. Let me pet her. "Isn't she soft?"
No. 145: Baseball cap that said "Toto's." Asked about my notepad. Gave me a dollar.
No. 79 is back. Nice face, balding. Brought me flowers.
No. 16: Dirty nails, plaid pants and a parka. "Get a job."
No. 65: Shaved head, one blue vein throbbing on his left temple. "Let me see your titties."
No. 79 approaches me and asks why I stand at the factory gates at the edge of the parking lot. I look into his puzzled grey eyes and I tell him that I am waiting for someone. He has brought me flowers again, daisies, and he holds them tightly in his clean, soft hands. I ask him a question and he frowns, turns away from me. Asking helps me remember, even a few fleeting seconds--moments of fading in and back out again. Was it you?
It wasn't. It wasn't No. 79, but maybe it was. I keep asking. When I ask I remember black barbed branches swaying in the wind. I remember the final rays of sun on the windows of the factory, so many windows, some blazing, some already black.
Imagine a girl, slender, with long, dark hair, two eyes, blue, wearing a short green dress and strappy shoes, a girl with hard, white teeth, crunching ice cubes in a bar. Not square four-sided cubes, but round lozenges. And she smiled at the Chipped One.
My fingers gripped the handle of a car door as I lay on the back seat. "Get out," he said.
He left bruises blooming dark and ominous across my thigh.
I, underneath, I, underwater, I came floating up, scuttling, sloshing, pulled by the underwater tug, still I came floating up into silver foam.
There was a witness, according to Captain Sergeant, someone who made a report but refused to give his name. He said only that he worked at the factory. What did he see? He saw a body in a body of water, he saw a body bobbing amid bubbles, in slick water, in the gentle but insistent surge.
Men's hands are worth noting. One had a broken finger--the other one. I remember how it stuck out at an odd angle as he held his drink. And their eyes--watch where their eyes go when they're talking to you. The Chipped One, the one who smiled at me, his eyes were made of millions of icy blue slivers. The left eye floated, unmoored, in its blue orbit, like a wobbly planet. These things I have not forgotten.
A partly submerged tire, a clear glass bottle broken at the neck, an overturned shopping cart, mired. Beneath the aqueduct, the pilings rose above me and moss edged between layers of stone. A blue-green patina of algae bloomed in the seams.
I remember rolling, turning, a gentle, lilting turning, a slow waking.
I told Captain Sergeant about crunching my ice and sipping my drink, and the numbing, swooping blankness. I told him about being carried to the car, my eyes open and then shut. I told him there were two. I told him I remember holding the glass of vodka--and then the next thing was crouching under the chain-link fence. And the river.
My shoes are in my hands.
No. 79 sits in the parking lot in his car. He tells me it is a 1965 Buick Goldstar. He invites me to sit in the passenger seat, to rest. He looks out toward the horizon. Bless this land, he says. His eyes are a deep, velvety grey-blue and when he talks they drift and shimmer somewhere far off and he doesn't look at me at all. He tells me he used to play the clarinet in a Salvation Army band and wore a jacket with gold braid. He tells me that when he was a boy his father wore a fedora with a black grosgrain band. My dear, he says to me, allow me to drive you home. Were you the witness, I ask, but he says no. He never saw a body in a body of water, he's never been past the chain-link fence. I have a lot more work to do, I am not done with any of them yet.
This is what's left of that night: one green dress, packaged on a shelf in the office of Captain Sergeant. One glass bottle broken at the neck. A green-foil wrapper imprinted with the word Andes. The little shiny green square was plastered to my neck, the shattered glass bottle was what I grasped in my hand. My dress is evidence now, my fish-scaled, moldering dress, reeking of chemicals, silver-green, a meadow green grassy dress, a blasted Easter basket, woven with fronds and threadbare threads. It is the dress I died in and the one in which I lived again.
Each day I stand in the parking lot with the factory behind me. I walk past blocks and blocks of empty lots and chain-link fences and warehouses to get here. I am the girl in the blasted green dress, with long, streaming hair, and dripping eyes. I still know how to smile and that is what they really want. I still know how to dream and even now my dreams are my own. I do not dream of the wavering mouths of fishes, of being buoyed up on the bumpy backs of frogs, of slimy silver eels, of the webbed feet of mallards. I do not dream of the beaks of terns plucking brackish streaks of green from my hair.
The Chipped One brought me to this lot. He and the other one carried me past the factory windows and through the chain-link fence, down to the rushing, silver river. I remember his eyes, made of a millions chips of blue light, I remember his chipped front tooth, his chipped, bitten fingers.
I am the silver river girl, the dripping, drowning girl, the one who did not die.
"I like bodies," he said.
Imagine being held in water, covered with spume, spinning green and not dying. Imagine sleeping on dark silt beds, floating on currents, spinning deep and rising on black, cold waves. The witness, perhaps he knows how that could be, how I survived that night.
I saw windows, hundreds, thousands, perfect quadrangles, silver-white in the moonlight. As I ebbed and flowed in the dark waters, the factory was still, but when I awoke it had resumed its roaring, pumping discharge and the wind ruffled the silver water and the smoke and mist rose on the river.
I lay partly on the bank and partly in the water and the mist rose and rolled over me. I looked up at black branches against a silver sky as I lay there with the water still lapping at my left arm and left leg. Birds alighted in the branches and then took wing. A clear glass bottle lay in the sand by my right hand, so close that I could almost reach out and touch the broken neck of the bottle, and then I could--my fingers reached out and grasped the clear glass.
Captain Sergeant, he of the long, thin hands, hands too delicate to be those of a captain or a sergeant, he of the muddy brown eyes that never wavered--except once. He told me that the river had no name, and he raised an eyebrow and folded his long, thin hands when I told him I did not know the name of the Chipped One. And then his eyes drifted far away from me when he spoke of bloodstains and semen, and they traveled back again, to rest on me, on my face, as he told me my dress had been brined, with me in it, and that it therefore offered no secrets, only oily river water and smoke. You're one lucky lady, he told me.
I told Captain Sergeant it was dark and I was kneeling in the river muck, then standing, then falling again. I told him that the factory loomed behind wire fencing, that blood trickled from my knee and wrist and that the fence was broken, twisted. I told him that I was gasping and retching and being alive. He looked right at me and he didn't say anything. Then he told me that he would need to keep my dress. He said there was a witness, someone who saw but did not give his name. That's lucky, too, he said.
No. 79 sits in the parking lot of the factory in his Buick Goldstar, his hands folded on his stomach. He invites me to sit in the passenger seat. He tells me that he's retired now, but that he parked in this lot every day for 22 years. He turns his kindly grey eyes to me, but then he looks out again and his eyes change, they get clear and chilly, and I wonder what he has seen, what he knows. I want to remind him of the swirling eddies of the river and all it contains, but I don't because then his eyes come back, they get cloudy with concern and his brows are like black hillocks looming over the grey.
I keep asking my questions and taking my notes and so far I have ruled out Nos. 26, 48, 55, 63, 76, 91, 92, 103, 106, and 112. Asking keeps me windy inside, like the golden prairie that No. 79 tells me about, like the soft, green pastures rolling out to the blue horizon, like papa's white shirts on the clothesline, like the way his heart soared to see my mama standing there.
The Chipped One, his hands were like wild birds fluttering in all the crevices of my being. I tell that to No. 79 but he shows no sign of recognition. If he stumbled upon that scene, maybe he would never tell. But I keep asking. As long as I keep asking, then I do not dream of huge stone pilings made of schist soaring above me. I do not dream of bloody chain-links and wrecked, spindly trees; I do not dream of smelting sparks and embers and bonfires.
Each day now I sit with No. 79 in the Buick. He tells me his name is Henry William Gastemeyer, but I don't call him that. I don't call him anything. I'm sound as a clock, he says, and thumps the steering wheel. He tells me that he remembers every word his mother ever said to him. I tell him that I need a witness, that I need someone who can remember what he saw. I tell him that I am collecting slivers and shards and strands.
I remember sounds, ones I'd been hearing all along--birds, far-off traffic, the laplaplap of the river.
What I know is that in the deeper place of the river, there are soft white fronds, long grey eels, catfish with whiskers floating on the currents, clumps of moss and tangled river weeds. Over all this, a sweet gray smoke holds sway, a rising chemical mist hovers over the water and burns the lungs.
I've stopped asking No. 79 any more questions because asking makes him quiet and I want to keep him talking, I want to rest in the vast, windy grey of his eyes, I want to hear about how the plow churned up newly turned earth, how the swallows swooped out of the trees and how his heart soared to see my mama standing there. He brought her fistfuls of Michaelmas daisies and Queen Anne's Lace, and she put them into the pockets of her calico apron, stalks and stems and dirt still clinging to the roots. She shooed me away, he says. But he stayed and she turned back to him and drew him to her. "Land's sake," she said and drew him closer.
"Was it you?" I ask him, and he nods. But when I ask him what he saw, he just shakes his head. I tell him, Imagine the body of a girl bumping along in the undertow. She is bathed in silt, her hair streaked with algae, and she breathes in vapors and mists. She rises radiant from a slurry of isotopes and polymers, she rises toward the oxygen, she staggers up into silt and loam, her hair rank and steaming, rivulets of flotsam coursing from her dress, oozing from every orifice.
I stand at the entrance to the parking lot, by the factory, in a different dress, my hair lank and unwashed. I have been steeped in deep waters, nudged by the gentle mouths of eels, grazed by the underbellies of frogs, mired in the soft, sodden muck of rotten leaves. The silver slurry of no-name river left its imprint on me: my breath comes a little harder now, my eyes are the cool, watery eyes of a not-drowned girl, my fingers tremble now, sometimes I can't feel my feet at all, my spine rattles, my skin is translucent.
No. 79 walks me partway to the river. We get almost all the way there. He is gallant and gentlemanly, offers me his arm. As we walk, I tell him that I need a witness. He doesn't say anything, but he turns to me, up close, and his eyes are narrow, his brows hunkered down over them. I urge him on, thinking that if we get there, he'll give himself away, he'll tell everything he knows. I tell myself to breathe as deeply as if these were my last breaths. No. 79 looks everywhere but at me; he stares at the pewter sky smoldering before us. And there is the river, just as it was. He turns back.
No. 79 has asked to see my notes, and I turn over the 86 pristine pages. He scans them before handing them back. I tell him that these are my notes of that night, the night for which there is no evidence, nothing that is not steeped in chemical brine. I tell him that these are the minutes of that night, from which minutes and hours and more are missing, and I wait. He stares straight ahead.
No. 79 parks the car amid the fronds, by the fence, and I get out. He stays behind the wheel, and when I look back the car seems to hover there amid the fronds, silver in the gloaming. He opens the door and gets out, he stands with the door open and calls to me. "You mustn't cross," he tells me, and points to the No Admittance sign by the fence. I tell him that I need to get to the river. "It's not much of a river, miss,"he says.
I remember the glittery mosaic of the Chipped One's eyes, even in darkness. The factory was at my back and I was on my knees in sand. Something came out of my mouth--a throaty slur before swooping back into darkness. Then I remember morning and the sun heating up the high grass. I remember birdsong.
I am not afraid. I know the way back in through the twisted links of the fence. I know the way the trees lean out over the river. I know the river's shallows and its depths, I know where it forks, I know where its bottom rises up, I know where a slender body can float and shimmer in those waters, I know how to stop breathing and then breathe again.
I don't know how I slept in those waters, how I swam, or scuttled, or breathed with water breath, how I made my way. Perhaps I parted the reeds, navigated the eddies and sloughs, and rode the quickening currents all night long. I took what the river gave me, I breathed in flakes of soot and ash, I inhaled one bright bubble at a time, and I lived.
Captain Sergeant held some papers in his thin, white hands and read aloud and shook his head. "You're one lucky lady," he told me.
I lead No. 79 past plastic bags and discarded syringes, under the blue-green pilings. He scans the horizon, as he always does. Then he looks down when he realizes he has splashed into the water. He backs away as the water engulfs his shoes. He offers me his arm. "I'd like to walk you home," he says.
"I take note of your tears," he says. He steps away from the water and stumbles on the stubby, stony bank. But then he turns and comes back toward me. He stares at me, his eyes dark pinholes. I don't move. Do you remember a girl like me, I ask him, only silver-green and waterlogged and streaked with dirt and tears? Do you remember a girl spinning and drowning and rising again? He doesn't answer. I keep one foot on the bank and one in the water. He turns, tips his hat, and moves back toward shore. He won't try to stop me.
The trees lean over the water, spreading their splintered branches, the birds sing their uneven song, the waters slap against the schist, leaving a scummy rime, a sparrow stalks the shore, spreading its metallic wings, a cold wind crests on the rugged, silver waves. All things that settle here, in these waters, on these banks--prepare to bear witness to a shivering, riven, surfacing girl.
I've always loved the lines that Whitman wrote when Lincoln died ("When Lilacs Last Bloomed in the Courtyard"). He asks, "And how shall I deck my song for the large, sweet soul that has gone? ...Lilac & star & bird, twined with the chant of my soul/There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim."
My narrator is asking how she should deck her song, and, yes, her memory is of a horrific event, so it's not an encomium by any means, and yet...In the way that she restages the experience again and again, allowing it to occupy her and manifest in her, it becomes a tribute, to her survival, but also to her memory, her version of the event.
Another line I love is from an Emily Dickinson poem: "he stuns you by degrees." The idea that one could be stunned gradually or cumulatively, as it were, is remarkable. This makes me think of the way trauma works, or, rather, the way the experience of trauma is recorded in memory. Precisely because the brain checks out during intense, traumatic experience, we discover trauma as we relive it. Like my narrator, we have only wisps and shards of the most horrific experiences of our lives, and as we try to make sense of them, gradually, cumulatively, we end up the authors of our most terrifying moments.