We’re pleased to run an excerpt from Matt Bell’s mythic, visceral novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Bell will read with Norman Lock on Thursday, June 13th, at Community Bookstore. Here’s his introduction to the excerpt:
Consumed by grief in the wake of his wife’s first miscarriage, the husband—a fisherman, a trapper—commits a desperate and compulsive act that secrets away within his body a child-like presence called the fingerling, a jealous and ghostly being that the husband slowly takes into his confidence. Later, after years of their struggling to start the family they wish to share, the wife—a singer whose powerful voice now summons into being ever-increasing varieties of objects, up to and including a second moon that threatens to destroy the sky above their home—at last claims to have given birth to the son the husband most desires, a son the husband rejects and calls the foundling. This chapter begins when the foundling is several years old, and the fingerling has already grown inside the husband’s body for even longer. While the husband continues to live only off the fish of the lake beside their house, the wife and the foundling prefer instead the meat the husband traps which before these pages he has not before agreed to taste—and as he takes one small step toward his family, he finds that his wife is already creating her own way to move farther from him, some new space sung into the dirt beneath their house.
Memory as new appetite, as hunger and harriment: To wish to try to join my family in its diet, but, because I would not take back my public objections, to do so always in secret,
eating only the parts of animals never eaten before, parts my wife and the foundling would not miss.
To trim the sinew from around the vertebrae of a raccoon, to gnaw a woodchuck’s knuckle, to save the ears of a hare in the back pocket of my trousers.
To crack open heavy nuts taken from the cheek of a squirrel, trapped while storing its winter stock.
To throw away the stringy flesh of groundbird after groundbird, keeping only loused mouthfuls of feathers to swallow later.
To do everything differently because what was already accomplished had failed to provide what life I wished, and only some new way seemed likely to save our family from this long fall, this world beneath the slow-sinking moon, this home where there was only husband and wife and fingerling and foundling in the house, only the bear in the woods and whatever-was-not-a-bear in the lake, of which I have barely yet spoke: We knew by then the ninth element was called bear, and for a time nine was enough. The tenth element was in those years only intuited, and what it was best named I did not know, whether whale or else squid, else kraken, else hafgufa or lyngbakr; a monster to match a monster, to oppose the other merely by its existence opposite the woods, in the lake on the other side of this border of dirt, the thin territory upon which we had staked our tiny claim.
Only rarely did I have some chance to speak with my wife alone, in the language of adults, that diction now kept reserved for special occasions, rarer privacies. Always the foundling was with us, or rather with her, caught up in her skirts or tasting from her cooking spoon or toppling over in the dirt of the yard, nearby where she hung up her laundry or beat the dried mud from off our rugs, and anyway everywhere within those first rooms was within ear- shot of everywhere else. Now there was nowhere we could go to be together, a couple only, and now every room seemed too small, the walls close by design but made closer by the dark furs that decorated every surface.
In hopes of catching my wife alone I began to take opportunities to exhaust the foundling, to chase him around the house and the yard behind, each time inventing some game for us to share— and I remember once I made my body as big as I could, hunching my shoulders like the bear, grunting and growling my worst feelings, and the boy ran before me, stumbling and mock terrified and calling for his mother, who did not laugh at our play but at least did nothing to stop it, only folded her laundry and kept her silence. And when the foundling at last collapsed napping in the grass, then his mother carried him into the house before returning to the yard, where her wash waited unfinished, and where I waited for her.
The play had tired me too, but it had not weakened my anger, and as always when I was in my worst moods I pressed my wife to explain our son’s origins, said to her, Tell me again of his conception, of the trials of your pregnancy, of threatening me with your moon that still hangs overhead.
My wife loosened one of my shirts from our line, folded its sleeves against its seams, folded it in half again, and placed it within her basket, a basket she had made. The shirt was cotton and not fur, but we raised no such crops, and so this too was sung into its shape, not trapped and skinned and sewn. All the most useful objects in our house were of her making, and what I asked her was whether the boy wasn’t the same, another construct, all hers.
She was still beautiful then, her skin glossed with sun and too much moon, her eyes tired but happier than they had been in the years of our failures, and as I complained she reassured me again, said, I have given you what you wanted, or close enough.
She said, I know how many children you wanted and I know this is just one child, but you could choose to decide he was enough, to believe that one child with me was still a miracle.
She said, You are unhappy but why, when this life is almost exactly the life you wanted, that you wanted and that I agreed to give you.
But still I was unsatisfied, still I claimed that the son she had given me was not the son we had made and that somehow she had replaced him with this other, this foundling. Against these claims my wife offered no new defense, would only reassure me again, telling me not to worry, that of course he was my son, that despite the wonders of her voice her songs could not make a life. She said this again and again, against my many multiplying queries, each voiced as I trailed her around the house, following her from chore to chore, until after so many denials she changed her tack, asked quietly, What is a life lived but an array of objects, gathered or else made into being, tumored inside the wall-skin of our still-growing house? What else to make a biography of, if not the contents of these rooms?
As much as I had tried to ignore its progress, still it was obvious that the house was growing, that it grew most when I was not looking, when I was not there to catch it, and that my wife had begun to ill its new rooms with objects of her own devising, made for her own needs, those of her foundling. And then one day I returned home to find my wife not in the rocking chair where I left her, nursing her stunted son, but rather in some new room dozens of yards farther down the hallway, the hall that before went only to our bedroom but now extended past that first door, past several others I did not know. There I found them, together in a space bare of furnishings except for some bed, and there mother and son slumbered, his head laid to her collarbone, perhaps naked beneath white sheets, bodies as close as hers and mine once were.
Everything remained unsaid, our lives a stasis of secrets, and when the foundling came to me on his own then too I reached out with my hands to maintain our safest distance, pushed his outstretched arms back down to his sides, corrected his advances: When he tried to kiss me goodnight like he did my wife, I turned my stubbled cheek against his milk-stunk lips, and he was not yet strong enough to turn it back, not even with his fingers twisted tight into the scrub of my then-new beard.
The fingerling rejoiced with turns and twists through the short circuit of my guts, where he continued to make his most frequent habitation, exiting the long throw of my stomach and intestines only occasionally for the passages and pouches of lungs or liver or bladder. As yet I had not felt him within the confines of my skull-space, but often he crawled along the surface of my face, stretching my skin so that I was sure my wife might see him sliding across my features, as I thought her foundling sometimes saw. If she did, she said nothing, and eventually I came to believe that she must not. But whether her not seeing was a failure to under- stand or a failure to look, I did not yet want to know.
Memory as flicker, as fury: To be able to be jealous of a child was to imagine thoughts for the child that he was not yet old enough to have.
To be suspicious of our house was to be sure that in the morning there was no second floor below our cellar, and no stairs leading farther down and in, and yet in the afternoon to find both those constructions.
To have built this house without understanding or imagining that when I stopped building it would grow still—and when I was not looking, then again my wife remade what I had made, sang her own house within my house—for how else to account for all those rooms, all those hallways? How else to account for these stairs, these doors, and behind them chambers furnished with new shapes?
My wife withdrew the foundling farther from my gaze, and after- ward I saw them only rarely outside the house and never far from it. I had rowed them out onto the lake, had tried to teach the found- ling my habits, but those days too were ended, and again I would be the only one of my kind, denied my lineage. Now my wife and the foundling emerged from the new chambers of the house only at specific times, only at meals or else not even then, and afterward my wife retreated not by heading out of the house but by heading in, by climbing back or else down. Soon all our closets gave access to such stairs, and at the bottom of these staircases were only more doors, more halls, more rooms that for a long time stayed empty, until my wife began to fill them with the song of her voice, and after they were filled she sometimes locked their contents away, which in those days were not yet meant for me.
On the first floor, the doors were not locked as the deep ones were, and so I wandered past them in the early mornings, the late nights, the hours when my wife and the foundling slept in our shared bed or else their other bed to which I was never invited, set in a chamber I could not enter, its door suddenly barred by a mechanism I could not discover. I searched each open room, and in each one I found some newly aggressive mundanity, some object or set of wife-sung objects, their shapes familiar but their purpose inscrutable to my reckoning.
What was I to make of these rooms, the few I saw before they were shut away, and also of what they were filled with? Some held objects obvious in purposed pairings—the crib and the cradle, the bottle and the blanket—but others less so: In one room, I saw the death of a cougar but not the cougar itself; in another, the moltings of a thousand butterflies; and then a single giant specimen of the same species, bigger than any I’d seen, first flapping slowly about the room, then becoming more and more agitated as it failed to find its escape, thrashing its iridescent body against the walls of its cell until its magnificent wings were broken.
The creation of these new rooms—this deep house—took some toll on my wife, or else the strain of mothering the foundling began to diminish her, or else it was only the years, the first decade of our marriage already ended: Her porcelain skin paled further, shrank tight against her bones, and her long black hair shone less and less, until at last she took a pair of scissors to it, cut its length up and around her ears, and afterward it seemed her face was different than I remembered, as if her hair’s framing was enough to make her one person, its absence another. Some days her voice was so hoarse from her singing that she claimed she could not speak at dinner, and at other meals she did not speak but gave no reason.