Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Pamela Ryder’s new novel Paradise Field, focusing on the last years in the life of a veteran of the Second World War. In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Ryder had this to say about the origins of the book: “I came to write Paradise Field—the stories about the final years of a WWII bomber pilot and the adult daughter who cares for the old man—because of my father’s death. The book is my father and I.” The book is available now via FC2 and bookstores everywhere.
Details of Grief
It is not quite spring. The threshold—yes, but not yet the frantic tug and sweet hum and tweak of life. Some birds of the past season still live, still hold on. Winter doves amble amid the rows of stones. Geese going over take a wide turn seeking early open water or patches where the snow has been cleared for digging. Crows watch from steeples. Starlings sit along chimney rims in the shimmer of forced heat. Trees are still bare of leaves, but come dusk, the silhouettes of limbs are dressed in clusters of clouds the color of sundown and smoke. There is wind. Twigs click. Paper blows in the road. Hats tumble and bounce away on their brims. Old letters held in the hands rattle; as the grip loosens and weakens, they are torn away. (Hello to all and how’s the weather out by you? Holding up here. Home soon.) The pages—flimsy with the years—take flight. There is no holding on.
Far away in the heartland, great sweeps of snow still blow above the fields. The slender thoroughfares of mice and voles are drifted over. Old furrows are marked only by stubble and shadow. Implements of tillage are stowed. Plows wait.
But in certain fields, it is not too soon for making holes and digging shapes that hold long boards and wooden walls. In any season there are places in the earth where the earth is upturned, broken by pickaxe, lifted by backhoe. A man rides inside the glassed-in cab and engages the gears. The metal neck creaks and grinds at the joint, then extends and drops the jaw-hinged scoop. The teeth scrape into the frozen sod. Plates of shale are cracked and rise, trembling. Earth is lifted. The soil, powdery and crystalled, drips from the teeth, as if it be some old dragon forced in famine to eat the very earth, oh mouthfuls soon enough when the final wooden walls collapse. The neck and scoop swings clear. Old stones scoured smooth by long-gone glacial ice are split or tossed intact. What rises from the hole is the cold smell of iron and ice and sweet split root.
More men come. They carry shovels and spades. They step on the clods of earth and the torn-up rags of turf as they walk over dates and names cut into flat-laid stones. Over here, Bill, one says. We’re two rows over.
A road winds though the field of stones, past the plastic blooms stuck in on wire stems, past a few folk dressed in clothes for cold spring days. Men in suits. Women in their coats and hats. Cars come and go, headlighted despite the brightness of day, and some long-bedded for bearing their consignments of newly-boxed bones behind the curtained windows. Those who await their spaces in the earth. There is no hurry. New holes have been made among the older specimens supine in their quarters in poses of comfort and repose—an arrangement of limbs, of hands placed just so; the oldest of these are held in place not by sinews yet unsnapped or cured flesh but by decomposing clothes and the narrow span of boards.
Early light. Oh yes: the living stir. Still abed, their nighttime cries of remorse, grief, regret subside. Dread of the final dark dissipated. Dreams pushed away. They breathe the morning air, remember where they are. Drapes are parted. Shades are rolled up. They view their desiccated lawns and the salt stains on the flagstone; newspapers delivered to the shrubbery. A father reads the front pages, the sports pages, the obituary lists. A father wipes the fog from a mirror with the edge of his backhand, lathers up. A mother sweeps, wipes crumbs from a table. A boy slams a door. A daughter opens a book of poems and finds there the crumbling flowers she had pressed. Infants kick off their covers. Last year’s leaves and twigs from winter storms clot in the gutter traps. Children tumble from rooftops. A hawk in flight folds her wings against herself and falls from the sky, drops upon the back of a resting dove, presses her claws though its feathers and into its skin and ribs and lungs. Loose feathers fly away. Vessels are pierced. Blood fills its mouth. The open beak. Struggles cease. The body is opened. A page of the old letter taken up by a gust is blown flat against a kitchen window. A woman standing at her sink and doing dishes looks up and reads: Dear George, where are you and whom do you think you’re fooling?
The men climb down into the rough-dug hole. Tree roots protrude, some thick as rope, some delicately divided as lace. Here and there, shards protrude from the earth wall: a piece of crockery (blue willow woman with umbrella), a base of amber glass (beer bottle, tossed away by a grave digger himself long-ago subterranean), a fracture of flint (undulled by the days, the so many days), smooth stones the color of blood and the color of bread. A pebble of quartz, opaquely white as a tooth.
The men stand in the hole and cut the tree roots with their sharpened spades. They make the earth walls flat and plumb with their shovels. Sprays of soil fly as the shovel blades flash and dip above the rim.
The men set the boards. They swing their sledgehammers to the struts. The struts sink. The boards shake. Soil sifts through the slats. The earth walls are shorn up.
The anteroom is opened. The doors are a pair, sliding apart with the sound of a low rumble, a rattle of bearings along the metal track. The daughter is reminded of a trip she took as a child, some long-ago travel on train or scenic trolley or some other vehicle in motion, moving away. Even opened, the room is dim. A switch is flicked; a fixture overhead blinks and lights a showroom of sorts—an exhibit of carpentry, an assortment of woods. A selection of solids is arranged in a row. This poplar, this birch, this oak, this maple. Grain and whorl. Luster. Here, a separate aisle of veneers: of cypress and yew. Of mahogany, black and deep as a tarn. Here, a display of products only pine, of boards simply sanded, left unfinished.
The lids that lift are propped. The quarters are close. Interiors are displayed. All lacking decoration, ornament, or trim. Fabric therein arranged in a symmetry of folds and small drifts. Padding. Pillows appear to have been plumped.
A dearth of excess pervades.
A woman—the daughter—walks among these unadorned accommodations. She appears somewhat worn and disinclined to hurry. Decisions must be made in the details of grief. She carries a parcel, papered and twined, held under her arm, tucked. A bundle of some bulk. She looks for a place it can be put. She looks for a window, some aperture that allows in natural light.
Allow me, says the skull-capped proprietor, the purveyor or boxes. He extends his hand to take the bundle. The clothing? he asks, the jacket and such? he says, taking it in his fingers by the closure of the twine, setting it down on a surface that appears to be teak. Or perhaps it is a fir, a species of evergreen wood.
Birch is a good choice, says the purveyor of boxes. This one is the Elijah, displayed in birch. Also available in mahogany or beech. As is the Homewood. And the Sinai. Or, if you prefer, we have each in oak.
Solid or veneer. Both. Hence the difference in price.
Also the David, the Emmanuel, the Mount Olive, he says. A Star of David on the lid would be purely optional. Though a lack of decoration of any kind is more in keeping.
The daughter is moving through the room. She slides her hand along the wood. Her hands seem older than she is and older that what has been hewn.
She looks for where a box such as this may be opened, so fine the carpentry is, and given how the top slopes keenly to the body of it and how fitted is the lid. Allow me, says the purveyor of boxes, moving beside her, standing close by, close in. A nudge so slight to have her step aside. Not quite a push, no not nearly so. He puts his hands on a panel that is meant to slide away. The lid is the kind that moves to expose the face, the head, the place that the face and the head would be. The purveyor of boxes pulls the part along the groove. A slide of cabinetry, the sound of wood on wood.
The Mount Olive interior, he states, is available in a variety of colors.
The daughter walks from box to box, the insides of which appear variations only of white.
Including, he says, eggshell and ivory, both of which are very popular these days. However, he says, if you prefer something more traditional, I’d suggest the paler parchment or even the bone.
Or this, says the purveyor of boxes, now beside box of a wood whorled gold, with what seems to be a light from within the grain, and reminiscent of burl, but without the knots.
Or, he says, we have this one done in candlelight—as you can see it’s somewhat darker than the shade we call seashell or even mist.
The daughter looks into the box. The fabric is gathered into tufts. The edges are sewn in a series of folds. The pillow is placed as it would be in a bed but this not a bed. This clean bright box is nothing like the bed where the father had slept and waked and took hold of the rails and held on and held on where he lay in the damp on the stains and the spills and the crumbs and the sometime smell of piss and sweat. Inside this box of gold-whorled wood is a whiteness that is not ivory or candlelight or mist, but a whiteness the color of a soft-boiled egg getting cold in a cup; the color of potatoes that the daughter mashed up and scooped on a spoon and lifted to his mouth: come on, just a little, just one more bite. The color of pudding in a bowl in his lap: go on, it’s good, take a taste. Or tapioca with cream on the table at his bedside, left untouched in his dish.
The daughter appears to be pale. A lightness of the head, a dryness of the mouth.
As I mentioned before, says the purveyor of boxes, we have an assortment of shades. We can mix and match, he says, noting her glassiness of eye and taking her blank look as indecision.
The Eternal is available with a Zion lining. Also the Jerusalem, if you would like to take a look.
He two-handedly lifts. A perceptible creak.
The purveyor of boxes explaining the lack of brass or bronze or handles or grips. No bolts on a lid, he says. No hinges employed. No nails. Instead the necessity of pegs, of dowels—and a sturdy glue in strategic spots. I can assure you, he says, that nothing you see here was built on the Sabbath.
Strict adherence to custom, he says. No metals of any kind employed. And certainly, he says, no rings on the fingers. No medallions, belt buckles or such.
The volume of his voice lifts, as if to instruct. Nothing permitted, he says, that would not readily return to the earth.
The purveyor of boxes steps forward with some haste and lowers a lid. It appears as if his fingers will be pinched, but he seems to know some special way to grip.
Which brings to light the problem of the clothing, he says. Clothing in general, he says, and in this case, the matter of the jacket.
The purveyor of boxes takes the package from where it has been set. He fusses with the twine. A knot. The paper is torn away.
Ah yes, he says, the problem of the jacket. Not the jacket per se, he says, but the issue of the zipper. The tendency to decompose being preferable. Because such a thing as this, such a thing as a zipper—would not.
Not what? the daughter says.
The zipper aside, and in regards to the jacket, such as it is, says the purveyor of boxes. It is not quite in keeping, he says, owing to its condition. See for yourself, says the purveyor of boxes, his hands on the jacket, his hands turning open and partially inside out. The lining is quite tattered, he says. His hands on the neck of it, the frayed flap of a pocket. The worn cuff and collar. The leather there showing rot.
His flight jacket, the daughter says. It’s very old.
Nonetheless, say the purveyor of boxes. A simple shroud is certainly more the custom. Certainly more in keeping. We have both cotton and linen in stock.
Was your father at all observant? asks the purveyor of boxes.
Observant? says the daughter.
A practicing Jew, he inquires. Was he observant of custom, or high holy days?
Observant? says the daughter. Observant, yes—of a cover of clouds, or ice on the wing, or the shadow of his plane over snow-covered hills; observant of the high holy days of smoke and wind and the sway of trees at the end of a runway; of the direction of dust blowing on a desert road or the formation of a front.
The daughter leans against the Elijah.
The purveyor of boxes taps the veneer of the Homeward with his finger, a gesture practiced, subtle, of patience wearing thin.
Worn in the war, is that it? says the purveyor of boxes. Or some sort of special request?
The shovels fly from the hole, then the spades. Whoa, Bill! calls the man up in the backhoe. Watch what you’re doing, would you? Look where you’re throwing that stuff.
Get on over here, calls the man in the hole to the one in the backhoe. Get on out of that thing and give us a hand up.
. . .
The daughter stands beside the box. Which wood? she wonders. Then remembers: birch, yes—that was it. All right, she had said to the purveyor of boxes. This one—the birch. Yes.
She wonders if there is space enough at the shoulders. She wonders if outside the clouds are still low and tightly layered.
She wonders if the pillow in the box had been fluffed enough to give the father’s head the right tilt: not too extended at the neck, and his chin and jaw not too tucked. And if someone tried to put his dentures in his mouth when his jaw was stiff. Of if they had been slipped in without force or mess or fuss when his mouth had gone slack. And if someone had wiped the spit from his face the way she would have wiped it. And if someone had put his hands in place with the sleeve and cuff of the jacket pulled down to the wrist.
She wonders if the room where he had been kept was a room kept as cold as a day might be when snow was coming. And if, outside, the clouds coming in are cirrus. Or cumulonimbus. Or if it has gotten colder. Or if there is much wind.
She wonders if the jacket still fits, and then thinks: it does, it must; there had been the loss of weight.
She wonders if there are other kinds of cold. Climes unknown.
If there are weathers in the earth.
She places her hands along the lid, to get a grip to get it open.
To see if the jacket has been properly zipped.