Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #3, Spring & Summer 1999]

Daughter! I Forbid Your Recurring Dream!
(From a novel to be published in 2000 by Fugue State Press)

By James Chapman
[The book is really a single question, unanswerable as it turns out. So it's not even a question, just a statement: "Faith means believing something you absolutely disbelieve."

Frieda tells the story of her life, a series of boxes: religion one box, her family a box, her own beauty a box to pour out freely. She believes in art, as long as she can; in marriage, as long as she can. A box is to sit inside, to know all the walls of: a system of belief. A system is a trap, too. Frieda wants to keep her joyous beliefs even while she tries to get free of them. Every box she has, she breaks: with grateful knowledge, with testing, with proofs and disproving. And broken boxes don't let her back inside again.

This rather Cornell-bitten fragment occurs after she's broken-down her last faith but one. Now all roads are open to her. Because no faith is true, she can walk freely. No container is larger than no container at all.

She has no place to go. So she walks into this forest -- trying to reach the end of the world -- but winds up comforted, slightly, by human artifacts. The novel doesn't end here. -- James Chapman.]

Snow on the ground, snow with black underneath you can't see. The black was the road that used to be here.

Our voices are stuck into our throats and stay. Only a clawhammer could pull it out into the winter air, where it's finally silent.

The light of my face choked. I've got the face of a string mop, and I know what the mop knows, I was born to be mop of the world.

There's trees here. There's more snow than I'll ever get across.

Snow that softens things. Walking in cold is hard, but the narrow road makes me laugh out loud how it already knows I'm coming. I laugh and sing, scream, hoot, haah, but the ugly rasp of my voice doesn't warm the air, doesn't melt any snow at all.

* * *

Finally I have to rest under the cement slab with rusted knobby pipes sticking out. Terrible jumping in the muscles of my legs. While I rest the air warms itself (on what?) -- pretty soon I'm scared by fields of melt, mud snow, slush ponds, and every tree dead that an hour ago was frosted alive.

Despite what people are going to assume, I'm not controlling this weather. For that I would need a hasp that softens things. A saw that simplifies. A shovel that improves the world. (A grave is a box with a real lid.)

I try more walking.

A woman brings me a bucket of warm water to wash in. She talks quietly to me and I draw a secret line down her face. She stops trying to talk, but I can see her face, invisible line I put there, sadness. She lives alone. She gives me a loaf of bread, and I resume my walk, she got rid of me.

A man hands me a coin without letting me see his face clearly. The face on the coin is too calm, I can't draw on it. Those who live here have surrounded themselves with bare trees.

Dog walking through mud leaps when he sees his master (love). The chain the man uses to limit the dog is silver. It lets him run long, long. It drags in the mud and vanishes invisible, only appears when it goes taut-silver again.

Eventually, I knew I would, I reach a gouged-out part of the earth too wide for me to cross, full of a whole river. Up the mountain beyond there's a hundred people, tiny far, in a long line. They seem to be passing something, some object, one person to the next, up the mountain. Each person has his own private way of jamming his feet into the rocks to not fall.

I've arrived noplace. Can't be dead by caring to die? Body won't just stop by itself?

I sit against a fallen tree by the road. Animals look at me; people don't. People are walking in twos and threes along the road, the direction I came from, all heading for some shared activity.

I can watch, my forehead against the cool dead branch crook I'm held in. Mud makes its deathmask of my legs. My fingertip, a mud pen, draws down my face a line.

The sawyer across the road destroying a tree seems to know what to do next. You can watch him for hours in peace, because each motion is connected to the next, and each plan follows each. The bird in the doomed tree flies in a loop out around and back for no reason. Sings and stops. Jumps to a different branch, why.

I have to drink water. I have to pee. I have watched television in my life for many thousands of hours. I'm hungry. My legs hurt. This is not a cathedral. I stink.

I will die here. The flattened jackdaw body is the same texture and color as old leaves mulch. They get their look from stopped-ness.

A pair of girl children, one walking behind holding a long stick which she rests on the head of the other, who walks carefully in front, controlled by the requirement that she balance, unable to turn around to see her friend, she has to look ahead, and I realize I'm going to start walking too.

I should not. There's no place to go.

I walk more. Up the river of this muddy valley, all grays and browns, a piece of paper by the side of the road takes all the air out of the air, makes me have to sit. It's a magazine page, a false photograph of blue, or a painting of the color blue. A page of fervent blue ink, like a square hole dug in the earth has a sky at the bottom.

I walk miles more.

This far up the river, nature is without people. I should have kept the piece of paper.

The brown rabbit is repeated in the toes of treetrunk. The brown rabbit, by standing still, makes coins dance in the air. On each coin the face of a man who in life loved rabbits.

The ash tree is made of cork, so the bird laughs when landing on its top. The bird keeps its nest (its strength) hidden somewhere else, in a more ordinary tree.

Wire mesh, steel bars, chainlink, these were invented when somebody put his palm to the earth and pushed. The birds compete to paint the sky with black dots, but they depend on what operates this forest, which is an iron mainspring with a red rope tied to it. Nobody has strength to pull the rope to rewind the spring. But the rope anyway hangs there.

After dark the earth turns colder: trying to eliminate what is purposeless.

Stars rip the tangled trees into long strips. Strips in layers confuse the night. Birds hush up and a ring of bushes becomes a sex bramble that grows up between the legs of lost lambs. The black forest is a pharmacy of poisons, where the neat rows of glass bottles have turned inside-out. Nature is without people to draw maps. The only map of the forest is the black flat picture of a forest the forest makes.

Animals that are awake at moonrise include the Ballerina Clam, the male Black-Widow, the Pope's Nose, the Dell of Flesh, the Mirror Bug, the Stallion, the Box Snake, the Black-Glass Hart.

The animals who look alike recognize each other and call. It is their breasts and sex that speak, but also their need to hear each other. The click of the forest clam gives the other calcium-white moon clams a shell of peace.

Nature performs segments. Nature is the Barrier-Artist. A river beside a frozen wood.

Every animal behaves like an animal. Every animal is punished with destruction.

Birds stay together as man and wife. They peck each other. They carry cold eyes. Beaks will not smile, they sing and shriek. They protect each other and are destroyed together.

Bug sliding on a bit of still water has its belly in a mirror below it. It doesn't gaze down at itself, because its eyes don't work that way. But the deer who just woke up is looking around for another deer.

A box on the ground will always be a trap, but some animal will enter. The squirrel enters the black box. He imagined an infinite nut-tree hollow.

Gnawed bones at the foot of the ash-tree.

A grasshopper crawled, weeks ago, into the bubble cave of a piece of ice. How it had to bend its legs to fit, you can still see.

If a new animal appears, never before seen on earth, the trees will feel free to grow glass bells, lenses, windows.

A hard-housed turtle can speak about the cloak that covers everything more surely than a lizard, who hides, awaiting puncture, too frightened to tell the truth.

Even the shells of snails, which were created by being blown out of an isinglass pipe somewhere far up the river, call that pipe father.

The animal too powerful and terrifying for anybody to eat is King. The diatom nobody can see to eat is nothing. The bear who outlives the grasshopper has longer to wait.

Those animals without shells, without quills, without fangs, who're not very strong, who aren't immense or invisible-they lie down right at the entrance of the cave and offer their bodies to all. Even then some are still safe, because they smell bad, because their meat is rank.

Nature, at the very back of the cave. Black, narrow crawl, bones everywhere, all clink bones, always farther to crawl back in total blindness, never arrive at the final back wall of the cave (always faith this could maybe be a tunnel). Finally the passage is too narrow. Not made for you.

Nature without music. No pure tone hums in nature. The voices in languages babble. The sounds hiss, crackle, drip, burble, hiss, hiss. No tamed tune, because nobody to hear, no voices, no instructions, no beamed anger, no fingerpointing shouts.

Always cold. Always numb. The time's always the same time. If pounced on by a beast, an animal without shell, without quills, will stretch its neck flesh bare long across the mud table so it shines up white and soft, having believed for years and years that death will feel warmer than life, and like an arrival, an arrival like arriving at sleep.

Yet the sun does come up.

If it revealed a place to go. But everyplace only a place to be.

All the sky and outerspace flames, just to make a river be pink marble, just to show up color in a weave of grass and little never-to-grow-tall plants of single leaf. The sky immensity animals never stare up into. The earth hues they never stare down upon of green and green and green.

A shiny crinkle. Trash.

It's a cellophane bit. Wrap for candy.

It is a thumbsize square of cello, a deep amber light filter, printed in tiny pink letters HAPPY DAY.

The sun tilts into the floor and takes time away from each leaf and blade. Also it locates a perfect tiny silver circle. Geometry, not nature. It's the rim of a half-buried shot-glass, cloudy yellow, packed full of dead leaves, years past its lost schnapps. There are animals who make schnapps and sip it, saying happy day.

Leaves dead and cling of dirt inside the glass, and air inside, air passages, the glass showing bent-lens destinations through the nature, and in the bottom of the glass more geometry, amber sphere, a toy marble. The shot-glass and marble are together at home. They live in the forest.

Further upriver, a ground-hugging vine grows silver piping. This is the edge of a flask bottle, glass molded in rows of flower glass and leaf glass, so there could be permanent flowers and leaves, even in cold, even in dark, even in thirst and lack.

Inside the bottle lives a nation of algae in three species. A tiny brown spider is connecting the algae citizens with optic wires. Straight lines of web and tied-off bent conduits. At the bottom of the bottle, stuck in there, a slip of paper with pencil handwriting on it, overgrown with purple and brown living time. The words aren't readable -- they're about the effort to make a pencil, to sharpen it, to mouth words, to force a line curve to shape.

The sun moves over the rock. The rock, to be warmed, throws the dirt into shadow. This happens every day. The dirt is made out of ruined mountains. And in the dirt a piece of tree. This buried piece of tree is dead-it was clutched with geometry.

Pried up from its stillness, this wood is a shape, built by hands that wanted it to exist. A wooden box, boards nailed against other boards. Shallow and open like a display: mud was just now inside, now light is. Some places in the wood still show blue paint, from when it was meant to be pretty.

A dent, where the hammer missed the small nail. Ripple of mistake, the plane bobbling on the board. A bit of paper still glued to the inside, the dark green of a scale pattern like diamonds. A picture of a fish was fastened inside here, once.

It's not how the nails are starting to loosen, here and here, but how it's still holding itself together. Its builder's original idea was enough to keep it, even this late, organizing mud.

Where is he.

There was a little hasp for a lock here. There was a lid, or glass front. Hinge holes still show.

A fragment of picture of fish. This attempt. The trees sawed to boards and sculpted, an empty box. It holds caught for display the warmth of effort to make.

For every created artifact along this river, there're ten million nature objects, none filed sharp into a weapon. Acres of clay but no bowl, no jug for this river water. Leaves, trees. Leaves that die without missing other leaves, trees that don't love, they're made of wood. A chip in the mud. A bottlecap.

Little crinkly metal to cover a glassed thirst. This river could run a thousand miles, it'd never think of a tiny metal lid. And the top of lid, covered with orange paint letters, has been scratched-at. One line of rust, the profile of a face. A line mouth, a dot eye, and three lines for rust hair.

* * *

A huge red flat-smooth boulder is warm from the sun. Big stone table, hard and dry:

the bottlecap,

the glass with its marble,

the rosetted bottle,

the box. These artifacts arranged in the sun. Isolated, they start to dry.

Sun setting. The air gets cool, but the big table stone stays warm. Warm stone is a good place to sleep. Any animal would understand that.


James Chapman is a New York novelist. Fugue State Press can be found online at

CBR Home | Reviews | Excerpts & Features | Guidelines | CBR Press