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Karen Brennan

 

The first

 

and, I think, only farm I ever visited was somewhere in Virginia.  My sister and I went with our nurse, who was not a medical nurse, since we were not sick, but a governess, though we didn’t use that term in those days in America. 

She, Nursie, was a thin woman, on the gaunt side even, with salt and pepper hair that gave off a steel-like glint.  One noticed her hair particularly since it thudded to her waist, and was perennially gripped into a rubber band.    Imagine thick dark eyebrows, a faint moustache and knobby red hands and you’ve got the picture.

The farmhouse was an enormous plantation style home, all white with a wrap-around front porch replete with wicker rocking chairs and cats.  The people who lived there had been former employers of Nursie and they called her Miss Delgurcio.  There was a mother and a father, the former tall and blond with a brusque, stately manner and the latter an almost invisible presence among us, so absorbed was he in the daily newspaper and his cigar, except for the occasions on which he emitted a disgusting series of hacking coughs.

These were the days before obsessive tv watching and I remember playing a game on the living room rug.   I think the game must have been Clue because I remember a silver-colored candlestick and a tiny bottle of poison with a X on it.  I remember initially losing to my sister and the boy of the house, which humiliated me.

My sister:  younger, prettier, unafraid of dogs.  The boy of the house:  dog lover, sandy-haired, freckled.  I had fallen in love with him almost immediately, but it was my sister he favored.  His dog, also favoring my sister, at one point decided to bite me.

I remember the pattern on the rug.  Big faded pink flowers and a green vine threaded clumsily among the stems.  I remember the dinner table with its heavy silver cutlery and the bedroom with its twin canopy beds.  Those beds belonged to Mrs.____ and her sister, Nursie told us, and it was a special honor to sleep in them.

This was the first time I’d been bitten by a dog (though since then it has happened a multitude of times, countless times, and I have made peace with the fact that when dogs spot me their mouths begin to water and they become enraged).

The cow that required milking was brown and white, like a cow from a storybook.   I had such a book at my own home, in my own room, wherever that was.  That farm cow was called Deb and her udders dragged almost to the floor of the barn which was covered in tan hay.  I stood outside the wooden door, one of those half doors with the top half opened to reveal Deb and her milkers:  first the boy, Joe, then my sister, who boldly reached under the cow body and grabbed a fierce hold on one appendage after an-udder, ha ha.   She, my sister, was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a white cotton blouse.  At that moment, if asked to picture my home, wherever it was, I would picture a child’s drawing of a tiny house on a vast dark background because that gives you the feel of it.

My real home was nothing like that, but my idea of home, at the time, was primitive and unformed, as if my mind could not quite reconcile the desolate notion of home along with its actual imprint on memory.  The notion of home for me had always been difficult and lonely whereas my real home had been complex and bountiful with no smoke rising from the single chimney and no dark empty windows. 

After the cow was milked we were each given a tin cup of warm milk which I did not care for.  My sister’s eyes were bright, the boy Joe looked down at her fondly.  The dog who would eventually bite me was nuzzling her calf.  Outside the sun was like a child’s drawing of a sun, with rays shooting out in a circle.  There was a fence and a field of cattle who were routinely slaughtered for the evening meal. 

Steak, every night steak.  Blood red and sizzling, then cold with the fat congealing in a thin film across the top.  We were all given steak knives, very sharp with little teeth.  Nursie cut our steak for us:  tiny pieces as those you would feed to a kitten.  I felt as though I were eating my kitten (the kitten I did not own and did not long for).

We had been playing Clue.  I was conscious of my long, hideous face, my flat dark hair, of the way my pajamas bunched up when I sat and the absurd, unfortunate design on those pajamas, which was of chickens and eggs.  What could be more embarrassing? 

Miss Scarlet in the library with the gun, I guessed and I was right.  Joe shrugged unhappily but my sister, never a good sport, overturned the board, spraying the players and the cards and the weapons across the patterned rug.  That is when the dog bit my arm right through the pajama sleeve. 

After that, I was even less popular than before.  The boy and my sister went off by themselves and even Nursie seemed to distance herself from me.  I felt my life to be on a downward slide.  I sat beneath the white canopy of my designated bed, feeling sorry for myself, tugging anxiously at the Bandaid that covered the tooth marks of the dog and soaked up the blood it had drawn.  In the closet I found a box full of dried corn-on-the-cobs marked Halloween and a box of photographs marked Vacations.  I took two corns and a photo of a man pushing a wheelbarrow and a photo of a woman in an apron wearing glasses that made her look blind.  I put these things in the zipper compartment of my suitcase, along with a white bottle and a box of silver thumbtacks. 

By now everything has undone itself:  it has been revised and reconfigured in that silly vat we call memory, in that ridiculous thimble we call history; it has been repressed then unearthed then made to look more tragic then made to appear happier, all yellow, as if it had never occurred except in morbid, self-pitying imagination.  The dog, the boy, my sister, the nurse: all figures in a display I affix to the bulletin board in my study to remind me of my opportunities.

I have already lived many lives but this was one of the first. 

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Great_American_Novel__4.jpg

Process Statement:

I love this idea of writing from prompts, so that’s what I did.  I looked at James Gouldthorpe’s amazing images and let them inspire me. 

Most of my inspiration sprung from the loneliness I felt when I looked at the work—Gouldthorpe’s  Great American Novel as an experience of isolation: a series of seemingly unrelated images scattered across a page, very intimate, like a  stranger’s journal discovered at a bus stop. 

Along the way, I refer to separate images—the bottle, the woman in the apron, the house, the cow, the steak. And, at the end, I refer to the array of images that appear to be tacked on a board, almost like a code-- or a diary or a prompt.

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Karen Brennan is the author of six books, most recently, poems, little dark (Four Way Books, 2014)A collection of fiction, Monsters, is forthcoming in 2016.   A Professor Emerita from the University of Utah, she teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

All Responses:

Respond to a Prompt:

Submit your response to our current prompt(s). See our Submissions Guidelines page for details.

Great_American_Novel__4.jpg

Process Statement:

I love this idea of writing from prompts, so that’s what I did.  I looked at James Gouldthorpe’s amazing images and let them inspire me. 

Most of my inspiration sprung from the loneliness I felt when I looked at the work—Gouldthorpe’s  Great American Novel as an experience of isolation: a series of seemingly unrelated images scattered across a page, very intimate, like a  stranger’s journal discovered at a bus stop. 

Along the way, I refer to separate images—the bottle, the woman in the apron, the house, the cow, the steak. And, at the end, I refer to the array of images that appear to be tacked on a board, almost like a code-- or a diary or a prompt.

.....................

Karen Brennan is the author of six books, most recently, poems, little dark (Four Way Books, 2014)A collection of fiction, Monsters, is forthcoming in 2016.   A Professor Emerita from the University of Utah, she teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.