the taxidermist and the fire eater

I am working on a longer piece. (You might call it a “novel,” although it feels like over-reaching to say: “I am working on a novel.”) I have been turning it over in my mind in one way or another for the past several years. The woman is a taxidermist and sculptor. The man eats fire. It sounds absurd, I know, but on and off, over the years, I add fragments to this and these characters come alive for me in short bursts. After all this time, living with them, it would be difficult for me to imagine letting them go.

She wants to have a child, but cannot. On his travels (he works at Renaissance Faires and festivals, of course – what other avenues are there for men who swallow fire), he finds a young girl who has been left behind. She cannot speak, but she carries with her this notebook in which she has drawn hundreds of fantastical bird creatures – part human, part bird. He brings her home and she lives with them for a time before she disappears. They wonder if perhaps they have imagined her into being. Willed her into the widening gap between them.

While he travels, she falls into affairs with other men – sad, passionless men to whom she seems blessedly alive. She is seduced by the image of herself that she sees reflected in them. The memory of what she once thought she might be. The fire eater comes home less frequently.

After the girl disappears, the woman becomes increasingly despondent. As part of her search for the missing girl, she meets a man who reminds her of her father, a man she hardly knew, who killed himself when she was young. They maintain a correspondence over many years – although each in their separate, complicated lives – until finally, when they are old, they find their ways to each other and in their last years, they provide each other a kind of quiet peace – the kind that had eluded them for most of their lives.

Although the way I have described it might make it seem terribly sad, I see it as a book about redemption. About love and desire – the limitations of each. About the ways in which our lives bump up against the lives of others – the unpredictable, strange, and beautiful ways – often yielding gifts that could not have been imagined.

Several years ago, I was part of a small women’s writing group. We would get together weekly – alternating houses – and give each other writing exercises, the results of which we would then read aloud to each other. It was a difficult time in my own life when I was part of this and I was never quite as present, as engaged with it as I would like to have been. But then it seems that is always a challenge for me – to be in the moment of a thing rather than focusing on what comes next, or on what has already past.

There are few things I miss more from my time in graduate school than regularly hearing people read work aloud. There was a black-box theatre where most of our readings were held, and there in the darkened room, we’d sit in folding chairs and listen. I don’t mean to romanticize – well, just a bit perhaps – there were readings that were terrible, deadly, endless. But I find being read to such a generous, transporting act. All that you can hear in a person’s voice – intonation, rhythm, cadences, a touch of a regional accent? – so personal, so intimate. As revealing as the preoccupations of the writing itself.

Last night, we gathered at a tiny bookstore and M. read from the project that he has been working on for the last year or so. It’s a strange project – one that he is co-writing with two other authors. It is about a whole generation of children who cannot speak. A medical condition that prevents speech. The piece follows the children over decades and contains the collected “oral histories” of the people around them – the parents, the families, the doctors, and the various others with whom these “silents” cross paths. The fragments we heard last night were sad, but very funny, and we all left feeling buoyant, energized, light. What a gift it is to read and to be read to among friends. How sustaining.

One extraordinary thing that has happened – in this fortieth year, a year of rather extraordinary things – is that I have found my way back to writing again. After more than a decade of not writing much of anything – a fragment, a page, a terrible attempt at a story – I find myself writing steadily, daily. The mere accumulation of words each day, of minutes and hours – I have found to be an incredibly powerful thing.

How is it, I wondered, that I had managed for so long to organize my life in such a way that the thing I loved to do most, was the thing I kept myself from doing. How often we do this to ourselves – get in our own way, set up the barriers to our own progress.

I am so grateful to those of you who have shared this journey with me in the many ways you have. I am grateful for this space and all that is has afforded me. I don’t know exactly, what happens next, but I feel ready to embrace whatever comes.