Excerpted from GODSHOT, now available from Catapult Books. Copyright Chelsea Bieker, 2020.
To have an assignment, Pastor Vern said, you had to be a woman of blood. You had to be a man of deep voice and Adam’s apple. And you should never reveal your assignment to another soul, for assignments were a holy bargaining between you and your pastor and God Himself. To speak of them directly would be to mar God’s voice, turn the supernatural human, and ruin it. So not even my own mother could tell me what her assignment was that unseasonably warm winter, wouldn’t tell me months into it when spring lifted up more dry heat around us, and everything twisted and changed forever.
I longed to know where she went when she left our apartment each morning, returning in the evening flushed, a bit more peeled back each time. I imagined her proselytizing to the vagrants sleeping on rags in the fields at the edge of town, combing the women’s mud-baked hair, holding their hands and exorcising evil from their hearts. I imagined her floating above our beloved town of Peaches, dropping God glitter over us like an angel, summoning the rain to cure our droughted fields. I imagined all these things with a burn of jealousy, for I had not received my woman’s blessing yet, the rush of blood between my legs that would signify me as useful. I’d just turned fourteen but was still a board-chested child in the eyes of God and Pastor Vern, and so I prayed day and night for the blood to come to me in a river, to flood the bed I shared with my mother. Then I would be ready. I could have an assignment too.
Translated from the Spanish by RICHARD GWYNappears below in English and Spanish
I translated Inés Garland’s “The Old Dog” shortly after publishing one of her best-known stories, “A Perfect Queen,” in a special Argentine edition of the New Welsh Review, a few years back. I first came across Inés’ short stories on a visit to Buenos Aires in 2011, and was immediately drawn to her portrayal of individuals—almost always women—either at moments of self-realization brought about by the actions of others, or else struggling against an impending sense of loss or betrayal. But there is also a kind of detachment in her writing, as though her characters were teetering on the edge of some other, unknown revelation.
“The Old Dog” attracted me because of the tension between the two elderly human characters, and the way that the animal interloper seems to bring them together, however clumsily. The anecdote about the man’s former wife abandoning the family dog on the roadside—which, it is implied, has also been the fate of the dog in this story —is a horrible reminder of human cruelty, and helps us re-evaluate, perhaps, our initial lack of empathy for the male character.
My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland. Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo. We were celebrating because Margo had received a grant from the Jerome Foundation to work on a new chamber piece, her second big commission that year. We’d ordered steamed mussels and shared an entrée and lingered late into the night. The waiter was trying to convince us to get the chocolate mousse for dessert when my phone rang.
It’s been obvious from the beginning who are Broadway Babies and who aren’t. Those who truly can sing, who can give them the old razzle-dazzle, who live for that one singular sensation, have for the most part drawn attention to themselves from the first day of school. They cluster around the Black Box piano during rainy-day lunchtimes and sing The Fantasticks. They wear the Cats sweatshirts to school that they got on their holiday trip to New York. Some of them, like the Junior named Chad, are enviably serious musicians who can not only sing but play Sondheim, for real, from sheet music. Some of them, like Erin O’Leary, don’t just sing but dance like Ginger Rogers, having apparently put on tap shoes at the same time as they took their first steps.
Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie. She’s at the front door, paper grocery bags obscuring her, hitching the screen and kicking it open, and then edging through the door. Kayla scoots toward me when the door bangs shut; she snatches up her juice cup and sucks before kneading my ear. The little pinch and roll of her fingers almost hurts, but it’s her habit, so I swing her up in my arms and let her knead. Mam says she does it for comfort because she never breast-fed. PoorKayla, Mam sighed every time. Leonie hated when Mam and Pop began calling her Kayla like me. She has a name, Leonie said, and it’s her daddy’s. She look like a Kayla, Mam said, but Leonie never called her that.
The other day I was visited by a memory from the early days of my marriage, when my wife and I still lived in the old house on the south side of San Antonio. This was when we were both in our early twenties and nearly broke all the time, always on the verge of eviction from the house we rented for $520 a month. Still, we had a lot of friends back then—more friends than we have now—and these friends were always coming over with bottles of wine and half-finished paintings they wanted to show us, poems they wanted to read us, songs they wanted to play for us. There were a lot of parties back then—parties almost every night—and Madeline and I, still in the early years of our marriage, still childless, were somehow always hosting these parties in our house, though I can’t remember ever sending out formal invitations or even ever shopping in advance for them. They were more like spontaneous affairs, and all we really provided, aside from good will, and a kind of open door policy when it came to strangers, was the house itself.
My parents conceived me on a sofa in a department store. My mother worked in the underwear section and was a second-year nursing student. My father worked in the household appliances, hardware, and gardening section, and was a fifth-year social sciences student. They’d hardly been dating a month, and they’d never worked the same shift. Until that morning in May. No one saw them enter the warehouse holding hands—the store wouldn’t open to the public for another hour. No one heard them either, despite the fact that the sofa still had a plastic covering on the cushions to protect it from any stains. The sofa was more cream than yellow; it had solid wood legs and fit three people comfortably. Though my parents didn’t intend it, that morning there were already three of us.
Originally published in French in the collection En enfer, mon amour, Editions de l’Aire, 1990.
Story appears in both French and English.
I first encountered the work of Marie-Claire Dewarrat when I read her novel Carême, the story of a grieving father which the author wrote following the death of her own daughter. I was entranced by the book’s sweet strangeness and the way it wove dark, violent realities into the slow rhythms of grief and healing. In the short story collection from which “Rising Sap” is drawn, that darkness often takes a fantastical, surreal turn. Dewarrat’s fiction is deeply tied to season and landscape, more specifically to the countryside of French-speaking Switzerland where much of her work is set. Her wise, often teasing narratorial voice playfully and skillfully blends poetic language with informal, local turns of phrase, vividly conjuring that particular place.
Simon Marshall (interning tour guide, Art History, ABD) stands in the empty gravel yard of Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas. The sun dips below the high walls of the compound, illuminating a perfect half of the courtyard. Behind Simon a wide expanse stretches, interrupted only by Donald’s outdoor dining table, still holding two copper pots, as if the artist has just stepped inside to catch a call and has not been dead for decades. Simon, having shooed away the final tourist of the day, crosses the courtyard to lock the gates. The gate rears far above his head, solid wood aged to black and buttressed by iron. He feels medieval whenever he does this—who else but a feudal lord would need such protection? Tonight, there’s a moment of resistance before the door shuts and a figure, shadowed and slightly blurred around the edges, pushes through him. Literally right through him.