The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. The Heart Sutra  by Joyce Carol Oates
The Heart Sutra was first published in the Spring 2009 issue of American Short Fiction

          It has not happened yet. This most exquisite moment of equipoise, equilibrium.

          The moment between heartbeats. The moment between breaths. The moment of quick sharp terror before the plunge into orgasm, the body’s helpless convulsing as the soul is extinguished like a flame.

          Sometime before dawn of March 31. Though Serena has no sense of the date as she has but the vaguest sense of the season: this teasing New England stasis between late winter and early spring.   She is certain she hasn’t been sleeping—not since Andre has left her and the child—yet her eyes spring open alert and dilated.  Someone—it must be Andre—has unlocked a rear door, has entered the house quietly and is approaching in the hall.  Serena’s heart pounds like a terrified bird beating wings in her chest, she clutches the fifteen-month little Andre in her arms hearing his father’s footsteps in the corridor—
         “Andre?  We’re in here.”

          He will know where to find us.  I have left messages—so many messages!  His assistant knows.  His friends know.   He knows that I am waiting, and that I am not going to go away.

          This raging insomnia!  The sixth night of Serena Dayinka’s vigil in the borrowed house—the Nickelsons’ “big-open house” the child calls it, so many skylights, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, sliding glass doors overlooking a hilly late-winter terrain of drained and etiolated and curiously depthless pine woods—on rural-suburban Edgehill Lane three miles north of the village of Tarkington, Massachusetts.  Serena has had phases of insomnia in the past—since the age of thirteen, when her father went away—but none has been so virulent as this, raging like wild fire, dry brush, furious crackling flames rushing over the glassy walls, the high white ceilings and the hardwood floors whose high gloss has been dulled by boot prints (she, the grateful occupant of the borrowed house, de facto homeless until her June first residency begins at Breadloaf) has been careless about tracking damp, mud, gravel in and out, indifferent to stains from the child’s spilled food and leaky sodden underpants where in one of his more robust moods he has played at pushing himself across the floor like a little monkey) as other parts of the beautifully furnished house will be discovered to have been defiled by the recent occupants, some more willfully than others.  How could this horror have happened!  We welcomed her into our house to help her out, she was in such a predicament.  We did it to help out Andre.  We had no idea the poor woman was so--   Wiping the child’s runny nose on a paper cocktail napkin she then crumples and tosses aside—much of the house is strewn with wadded stiffened tissues—mother and little Andre are lying in a  patch of sunshine on the high-gloss living room floor, the several bedrooms in the Nickelsons’ house have become too smelly.

          Serena laughs to think how such superior individuals as Gerald and Danielle Nichelson—he, Andre Gatteau’s  poet-critic pal who publishes so frequently in The New York Review of Books, she, a “celebrated”  Renaissance art historian--will be obliged to stammer the inevitable clichés, how scripted their reactions will be, like those of TV performers.   All of Andre Gatteau’s friends, acquaintances, admirers—everyone who has known both Andre and Serena—and those who knew Andre’s son—will be forced to stammer in the days, weeks, months to follow will say But where was Andre, how could Andre have allowed such a horror to happen!

          She laughs, to think.

          Well, where is Andre Gatteau?  In the early-morning of March 31?

          Andre is in retreat.  Andre has gone away for an indeterminate period of time—it might be a few days, a week, two weeks.  Very likely, it will not be longer, nor has he traveled abroad, for, as his assistant knows, he has not taken his passport; she has reason to suspect, since she’d made hurried arrangements for him just the previous week, that Andre Gatteau is at the Lost Lake Mountain Zen Retreat in the Adirondack Mountains, eleven miles west of Scroon Lake.

          Several times in the past twenty-three years, Andre Gatteau has retreated to Lost Lake Mountain.  In the exigency of personal crises, Lost Lake Mountain has become his solace, his spiritual home.  That place where, when you come there, they have to take you in.   

          Here, in the mist-shrouded Adirondack dawn, so cold in the barely heated sesshin room overlooking leaden-glass Lost Lake that his breath is steaming, Andre Gatteau, fifty-three years old and feeling his age, is sitting zazen with a dozen other seekers of enlightenment under the tutelage of a revered Zen monk.  They were wakened in the dark at 5:45 A.M. , it is not yet 7:30 A.M. and already Andre Gatteau is feeling the strain of the intense Zen meditation.  Though Andre has been sitting zazen-- in the classic lotus position, buttocks on the bare pine floorboards, ankles tucked beneath (sinewy-muscled) legs, knees raised and hands in loosely gripped fists on his knees—for little more than an hour, already his bladder is pinching with a need to urinate; there have come mocking little jabs of arthritic pain not only in his legs but in his wrists, and in that tenderly vulnerable spot at the base of his spine; he is assailed by distracting thoughts, hornet-thoughts, obsessive thoughts—all that Zen meditation forbids.  Observe your thoughts.  Observe your thoughts as they emerge, as they arise, as they fill your consciousness, as they clamor and howl and fade and vanish, observe your thoughts knowing always that your thoughts are not you: your thoughts are not your Zen-mind. 

          This is true!   He knows this is the one true fact.

          And so he is determined, this time at Lost Lake Mountain he will not fail.  As he did not fail in the several heroic endeavors of his life, the first of these being a re-invention of his life, a scouring and a cleansing and a re-making of his soul, as an African-American boy of fourteen, in Lakeland, Florida.  

          The eastern sky above Mt. Hood is veined and mottled like a tumorous growth, curious streaks of shadow, crevices of sunshine and rain-swollen cumulous clouds.  Here is the beauty of the world, without humankind to name it.     

          With the exception of a flush-faced porcine white man in his sixties and an older, emaciated white woman with a starved-hawk of sheer desperation—Help me! help me!—the other Zen-seekers embarked upon this twelve-day sesshin retreat appear to be considerably younger than Andre Gatteau.  At the silent breakfast Andre had taken care not to look at anyone very closely—Andre Gatteau isn’t a man who wishes to exchange smiles, greetings, handshakes with strangers—certainly Andre doesn’t want anyone to look closely at him.  Known for his shyness, or his willful passivity, Andre is one to speak only when directly addressed and then often in a near-audible murmur.  (Though he reads his poetry on stage, as a performer, in a voice of astonishing emotional nuance, power, and beauty.)  Andre is a stocky dark-skinned man with a wrestler’s build: muscled shoulders, large hands and feet, slightly foreshortened legs.  His face looks as if it has been battered, as in a car wreck; he is ugly-handsome, with unusually large alert almond-shaped eyes aslant in his stolid face; on his forehead just beneath his hairline is a sickle-shaped scar that catches the light like a winking third eye.  His graying nubby hair is trimmed short.  Not a tall man, at five-foot-nine, Andre carries himself with an almost military bearing, he has a dread of stooped shoulders, a drooping head; he has a dread of aging, as he cannot imagine a future in which, by an effort of will, he will not be able to control the circumstances of his life utterly.

          At Lost Lake, Andre Gatteau is incognito.  In any case no incoming calls are accepted here, and no uninvited visitors.  The effort of sesshin is intense meditation: sitting zazen seven to ten hours daily, in the late afternoon walking zazen on the trails circling the retreat.  There are interludes of work zazen, Zen instruction, brief breaks for meals, bedtime promptly after sunset.

          Andre relieves some of the stress of the zazen meditation by going for a run of two to three miles before the evening meal and already by mid-morning his body yearns ahead to that interlude of release, and freedom:  always Andre has gone on solitary runs, often in the early morning, or in the early evening after a day of highly concentrated work.  Take me with you, I’m a runner too, I promise I won’t talk to you Andre please take me with you she’d pleaded before pregnancy distended her small supple body and there was no possibility of Serena joining him.

          It was nothing personal: Andre had never wanted anyone to accompany him, running.  Since he’d begun seriously writing poetry in his mid-twenties running—solitary running—has been sacred to him, a time of  intense meditation: his model is the blind John Milton who’d purposefully spent much of his time alone, developing his remarkable memory as one might develop muscles through sheer exercise and repetition; Milton could retain as many as fifty hendecasyllables of blank verse in his memory at a single time and then dictate these to whoever was available.  In this way the entirety of the magnificent Paradise Lost was composed.

          No living poet can be said to be “famous” in America—nor even “known”—yet in some quarters, predominantly east-coast, urban, and academic, Andre Gatteau has become a famous name in the past fifteen years: his photograph has appeared in the New York Times (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, McArthur award, et al.), he has been the subject of lengthy profiles in the New Yorker and Harper’s. Such attention has made Andre even more self-conscious in public.  Serena teased Poor Andre!  He resents being recognized when he doesn’t want to be recognized and he resents not being recognized when he isn’t recognized.

          Serena!   His heart contracts in pain, he will not think of her.

          Nor of the child: his child.

          Hers, and his.  He cannot think Ours.

          Andre?  Please call me. 

          I am so sorry, I did not mean to be so emotional.

          Did not mean to accuse you, it’s just I am so exhausted.

          Andre, forgive me, you know I didn’t mean the ridiculous things I said.

          Little Andre is missing you, darling.  Here, I will put him on the line, say hello to Daddy, honey, c’mon sweetie Daddy is listening—

          Call my cell phone, Andre.  It’s never turned off.  I am staying at Gerald’s and Danielle’s as you know, I am expecting to see you here maybe this weekend, please call and confirm will you, I will leave their number another time in case you’ve misplaced it.

          As the Heart Sutra is being chanted by Zen devotees, young Caucasians in coarse-woven monk-robes like a PBS documentary: this continuous lulling chant like slabs of  water cascading down a rocky mountain stream. 

          The Heart Sutra of which it is claimed that somewhere in the world at all times without ceasing the Heart Sutra which is the oldest and most beautiful of all the sutras is being chanted.

          No color sound smell taste

          Touch object of mind

          No realm of eyes  no realm of mind

          No ignorance no extinction of ignorance

          No old age death no extinction of old age and death

          The great bright mantra the utmost mantra

          Gone gone beyond

          Gone all the way beyond

           Bodhi Svaha!

          Serena surprised him stealing up behind him barefoot and naked except for wispy black panties sliding her small hot hands inside his shirt, kneaded and stroked his fleshy chest, tickled the taut little nipples, kiss-sucked that special spot just below his ear that never failed to arouse him sexually whispering All that Zen can tell you, darling, is what you already know: you are perfect.  And—I am perfect!   So—come to bed!

          Mum-my!  Mum-my.

          The child stirs and frets in her arms, his skin is flushed with fever.

          Premature by nearly five weeks the child is prone to respiratory ailments, for several days he’s been sneezing, nose running and that tight barking little cough that tears at her heart like a reproach.  Mum-my!  Mum-my!  Why doesn’t Dad-dy love us anymore!  As the Tarkington pediatrician has recommended Serena has been giving little Andre children’s aspirin dissolved in fruit juice, she’s been urging him to eat the hot oatmeal with raisins that has been his favorite, but the child hasn’t much appetite, spits and chokes up what he manages to swallow, pushing the spoon irritably away whining Mum-my no!  Don’t want.

          Even whining like a sick puppy, hair stuck to his forehead like seaweed and a powerful stench of baby-filth eking from him, little Andre is a beautiful child.  No Caucasian child so beautiful as Andre Dayinka Gatteau.   Exquisite thick-lashed dark-brown eyes, silky cocoa-colored skin distinctly lighter than his father’s burnished-dark skin but darker than his mother’s creamy-tawny skin, and those perfect little sculpted lips Mummy likes to kiss, suck-suck-kiss, as playfully Mummy suck-suck-kisses little Andre’s wriggling monkey-toes.  It has been a while since Serena has bathed little Andre, she intends to bathe him this morning while there is still time, no later than 11:30 A.M. she must bathe him, he must be prepared. 

          In the bath, the tiny penis.  Flesh-knob penis, miniature penis, so unlike the penis of an adult man she stoops to kiss it lightly, not a suck-suck-kiss in the tub (for that would be wicked, perverse)—such a Mummy-kiss is forbidden.   God help us.  God O God help us.  Help me not to do this God help me send me this child’s father O God.


          It is a fact, a legal fact: the child’s name is Andre Dayinka Gatteau.

          On the birth certificate this is so.  There is no questioning the paternity of the child, Serena Dayinka and Andre Gatteau had been sharing a residence for more than a year in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

          You can laugh at such legal formalities, such bourgeois convention, of course flamboyant young poets like Serena Dayinka laugh at such things  but there is a time (Serena knows, recalling the distraught example of her mother after her father died without leaving a legally executed will) when these may be the only words that matter.

          And they are to be married, Serena had begun to tell a few friends.  Impulsively she’d called her mother with whom she had not spoken in months and had not seen in more than a year.  Her mother’s voice had been eager, thrilled. You could not predict Phyllis Ferguson’s behavior: though she and her youngest and most mutinous daughter had not spoken in a long time it was as if, in this matter of marrying the great man they’d been conspiring like girls on the phone every day.  Will it be a public sort of wedding, Phyllis asked shamelessly, reporters, the press?  Andre Gatteau was very famous, Phyllis said, she’d looked him up on the Internet and people had heard of him where she lived.  (In Bethesda, Maryland.   With Serena’s elderly grandmother.  In the stolid-brick house in which Phyllis had grown up in the long-ago 1950s that held very little interest for Serena since it fell beyond the scope of her poetry.)   When was the wedding scheduled, Phyllis asked and Serena said, Late October.

          Almost shyly Phyllis asked where.  Serena said Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

          Chapel Hill!  North Carolina!  But why, Phyllis asked, confused.

          Because she and Andre had a joint appointment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Serena explained patiently.  Because they were moving to Chapel Hill at the end of the summer after they returned from the Prague literary festival. 

          Prague!   Phyllis did not even ask about Prague.

          Phyllis had not yet seen her beautiful cocoa-colored grandson in person.  Phyllis had not yet held her fifteen-month grandson in her arms.  So strange Serena thought it, a stab of pain between her eyes, a quick jolt of her old furious hatred for this woman, Phyllis seemed scarcely to respond when Serena spoke of her son.  She’d inquired after his skin color, initially.  She had not asked after him since.


          Little Andre has heard the sound, too—a man’s footsteps in the rear of the house—his eyes spring open, glassy yet alert.  Is it Dad-dy?   It seems to be a promise—Mummy has promised?—that the child’s father will be coming to see them very soon.  There has been the wonderful tiptoe-Daddy game, Daddy returning late at night and tiptoeing into the child’s room to lean over his bed and kiss him solemnly on the forehead

          Don’t wake up, little-Andre.  Bless you, in sleep.

          Often it has happened, for Daddy travels frequently.  It is Daddy’s complaint that he hates to travel, yet there is a pleasure in Daddy returning home, sometimes surprising Mummy; or sometimes in the night there is a call, and the child is wakened to hear his mother’s girlish voice catch in surprise.  Oh darling!  It’s you, where are you?

          This raging insomnia!  Its advantage is, Serena sees so very clearly.

          One of the Zen poems she’d copied into her journal, that Andre had shown her

           Nothing in the cry
           of cicadas suggests they
           are about to die

          Nine glittering knives on display in the Nickelsons’ kitchen!  Nine Japanese-made stainless steel knives with carved black handles, magnetized against a metal bar above the blond wood butcher block table.  Why so many knives?  Several appear to be nearly the same size, and similarly shaped; the differences are near-imperceptible.  One, the longest, at a wicked ten inches, must be a carving knife; there is a chef’s knife, with a specially weighted handle; there is a knife for the left hand; there is a deceptively ordinary-looking paring knife.   But razor-sharp.  A serious cook keeps his knives razor-sharp.   

          Serena felt a touch of vertigo.  These instruments of savage beauty taunting Serena Dayanik to look, to see.   Lurid as pornographic images, obscene in display as chattery Danielle Nickelson insisted upon showing Serena through the dazzling Mexican-tile-floored kitchen as if she, Serena, were a prospect buyer, and not a desperate homeless squatter clutching at her whimpering cast-off son.

          Gently Danielle kept touching Serena’s thin bare arm in a way meant to give comfort that felt like mockery.

          You and little Andre will be very comfortable here, I think!   There’s plenty of food and the village is only five minutes away and friends at the college will be looking out for you.  Say yes, Serena!  Gerald and I would be so happy if you stay here until—things are sorted out with Andre.

          Quickly Serena looked away from the knives.  Not a second glance, that Danielle Nickelson would recall.


          Winter sunshine!  There is something stark and cleansing about it.

          She wonders if, driving to Tarkington this morning, early-morning on the Interstate, Andre has been wearing the Gucci sunglasses she’d given him.

          These were very chic, very expensive steel-rimmed glasses with a dark amber tint, of which Andre had been disapproving of course.  But how handsome he looked wearing these glasses, Serena understood that he was secretly pleased.

           Lying with little Andre in her arms in a patch of wintry sunshine on the floor of the glass walled living room—opening her legs to the sunshine—naked legs, beneath her soiled flannel nightgown—this raging insomnia has gutted the inside of her skull, it is what is called rebound insomnia for she’d been taking an anti-anxiety medication called lorazapam which a Tarkington doctor had prescribed for her with but a single refill for he’d wanted her to come back within a week to see him but this Serena will not do.  As Dr. Bender wanted her to bring little Andre back within a few days for fear the child might develop bronchitis or pneumonia but Serena has no time for such things, Serena’s mind is blazing.  Like the Heart Sutra which is a continuous chant Serena’s mind is a continuous chant.  Strange how she is lying here on the floor gazing up at floor-to-ceiling bookshelves crammed with books—so many books—too many books!—Serena who has published just three books of poetry of which the first has already gone out of print looks away wincing.  After her father went away—such terms as death, self-inflicted were never uttered—Serena’s grief-stricken and furious mother summoned a second-hand bookstore proprietor  to haul away her father’s books; when Serena and her sisters returned from school that afternoon every shelf in their father’s study had been cleared, no sign of the man they’d called Papa remained. 

          Never has Serena told Andre Gatteau such shameful details of her childhood in College Park, Maryland.  It has been Serena’s strategy to present herself as utterly bourgeois, suburban despite the fact—the novelty-fact!—that her parents were mixed-race: her father Indian, born in Delhi; her mother Caucasian, from Bethesda .  Rarely does Serena tell anyone the fullest truth about herself except in her poetry in which, in meticulously crafted stanzas, she tells the truth slant as Emily Dickinson has prescribed.  Never reveal what can be flung back into your face Serena’s mother warned her daughters.  Serena hasn’t been telling the Tarkington pediatrician that she has been keeping little Andre with her at all times, night, day, even using the bathroom she is determined not to let the high-strung child out of her sight for a moment, in terror that the child will suddenly begin to vomit and choke to death on his vomit, in terror that on his skinny wobbly legs he will fall and strike his head on one of the sharp-edged chrome-and-glass tables in the borrowed house; he will begin to convulse, he will lapse into a fever-coma, he will simply cease breathing.  Andre had seemed to blame her, the child’s mother, for little Andre’s perpetual sniveling and runny nose.  For the way in which, in Andre’s words, the beautiful cocoa-skinned child did not seem right—his fussiness with food, his frequent temper tantrums, his fits of screeching and babbling at a deafening volume.  (Often, Andre simply fled the premises.  Nor could Andre abide what he called a “messy” household.)   Had not Serena’s own mother reacted with disbelief when Serena called her to inform her of the pregnancy You?  Pregnant?  Having a child?  Oh Serena I don’t think that is a good idea and will this man-- the father--marry you?

          At 9:13 A.M. the phone rings but it is not Daddy and yet it is early enough, there is plenty of time.

          Noon, Serena has decided.  She will bathe the child at 11:30  A.M. for lately there has been a struggle getting the child into the tub, Mummy must not lose patience with little Andre, but Mummy must be firm.  A line from Nietzsche that has always struck her It comes, it is nigh, the great noontide!

          The call was from one of the mutual friends. Checking up on Serena and the child, expressing concern for Serena and the child, asking if Serena and the child would like to come for supper that night, gladly he—Hugh--would come over and pick them up, bring them back to the house, Serena politely murmurs  No thank you making no effort to recall who the hell Hugh is, one of Andre’s professor-friends from Tarkington College, or could be from Amherst—Amherst is just fifteen miles away—maybe this is the pushy man, with his wife, who’d approached Serena in the Tarkington Market the last time she’d ventured out a few days ago  alarming and upsetting Serena in her state of  nerves and at an embarrassing moment when the child was behaving badly, kicking, whining, precarious in a child-seat attached to Serena’s shopping cart No please thank you leave me alone I am busy I can’t talk now thank you so much goodbye.

          How Serena has come to hate these people!  Pitying her, condescending to her, Andre Gatteau’s rejected woman and her brattish child, Serena Dayinka has become a figure of scorn, ridicule, contempt and her child an unwanted bastard as in the most brutal and horrific of Grimm’s  fairy tales Serena had appropriated for her use as an ambitious young poet.

          Powerful poetry.  I like this voice.  This is good poetry, Serena.  

          Softly he’d spoken, and sincerely.  It was not Andre Gatteau’s way to speak other than softly and sincerely and when Serena’s poetry did not please him, or when Serena herself did not please him, it was silence with which he responded, from the very first it has been silence with which he has responded, there can be no reply to silence, there can be no defense against silence, what power have the most persuasive, heartrending, carefully chosen words against silence and so it came to Serena months ago, as long as a year ago the terrible thought If I can’t make this man love me I will make this man hate me, I will pierce his stony heart.

          Of the Japanese knives Serena has selected just three to bring with her into the living room, to the spreading patch of sunshine on the rug.  An eight-inch steak knife, a long-handled bread knife, and the practical little paring knife.   But it is the longest knife, with its wicked-sharp blade, its sly-winking-steely-masculine authority, that most captivates Serena in her  mood of heightened awareness.  Thinking  An instrument like this wields its own justification. 

          The child knows not to play with knives—nor with forks, either—but has been fascinated by the flash of  knife blades in the sun.  Is this one of Mummy’s games?  That leave Mummy and little-Andre squealing with laughter, gasping for breath?  Mummy says No!  lightly slapping away the child’s inquisitive fingers.

          Sometimes when Mummy says No it is really Yes.  And sometimes if Mummy says Yes it is really No.

           “If your Daddy loved you better.  If your Daddy loved me.”

          Serena isn’t speaking reproachfully but playfully.  For she and the child are embarked upon a game.  Serena will think of it as a game.  Mummy and little-Andre in the borrowed house on Edgehill Lane and Daddy making his way to them on the Interstate: he is traveling at just the speed limit for this is Andre Gatteau’s way of caution in all matters.  Not even the pressure of time—it is 10:48 A.M., by 12:08 it will have happened in this patch of sunlight on the hardwood floor of the Nickelson’s borrowed house—can force him to behave otherwise.

          Serena wipes the perspiring child’s face, brushes his sticky hair back from his forehead.  Brightly Serena kisses the little pug nose. 

           “He knows, you know.  What will happen.  If he doesn’t love us.  I’ve told him in my poetry, he has read my poetry and he knows.”

          When you are the lover of a famous man his friends become your friends except when you are no longer the lover of the famous man and he has abruptly departed from your life you discover that these friends are no longer your friends but his.

          Please tell me where he is!  Henry?  Catherine?

          This is Serena.  Are you there—please pick up the phone.  Anthony?

          I am so sorry to be bothering you—again—but I need to speak with Andre, I need to leave a message for him, this is urgent and I don’t think his assistant is passing my messages on to him, please help me, I haven’t heard from Andre for almost two weeks, he hasn’t returned my calls and I don’t know why I swear I don’t know why please help me don’t do this to me—Jeanne?  Steve?—don’t do this to me, you will regret it.

          How humiliating for Andre Gatteau, the most private of men!   How mortified Andre will be when he learns that the distraught and vindictive mother of his child—his youngest child—younger than his (estranged, scattered) adult children by more than thirty years—will have contacted, or tried to contact, as many as forty people in the several harried  days leading to noon of March 31: Andre’s New York editor—his publisher—his agent—the very nice woman who arranges for Andre’s lucrative public appearances (who has begun representing Serena Dayinka, too, on a smaller scale); Andre’s poet-friends, Andre’s most valued poet-friend Nobel Prize-winning Derek Walcott who “isn’t available” to speak with her (Serena carefully spells out her name to Walcott’s assistant identifying herself as The fiancée of Andre Gatteau and the mother of his baby.)  With these people Serena is initially polite until she understands how they are lying to her, protecting Andre; then she becomes angry, sarcastic, abusive.  With mounting desperation she contacts former colleagues of Andre’s in the graduate writing program at NYU, some of whom have not glimpsed Andre Gatteau in years;  she swallows her pride to call one of Andre’s former lovers—a black woman lawyer associated with the Children’s Defense League in Washington, D.C.., who doesn’t return her call; one frantic morning after a terrifying insomniac night she calls the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Chapel Hill where she and Andre  have joint appointments to teach poetry in the fall.  Yes but you must have a number for him, a way of getting past his assistant I think so, you were speaking directly with him last fall, Andre was negotiating his salary you must remember!  Please help me, this is a matter of life and death!  A wave of fury, nausea, shame sweeps over her, Serena breaks the connection and begins to cry.

          “Mum-my?  No—cry.”

          Serena hugs little Andre, kisses him wetly on the lips.   This child is her salvation.

          Until her damned laptop developed a glitch Serena has been sending  emails as well.  Dozens—hundreds?—of frantic messages like deranged and rabid bats flying out blindly into the void.  Many bounce back, Serena doesn’t have the correct addresses for these strangers. 

          When she was nine, Serena and her two older sisters were informed by their mother in a furious quavering voice: “Your father has gone away, to be sick.  Your father is a sick selfish man.  Your father is a bankrupt, d’you know what a ‘bankrupt’ is?  You will know!  Soon enough, you will know!”   Their mother was a nervous woman with a fair, thin, flushed skin, a high-pitched voice, faded-red hair falling past her shoulders in a style too youthful for her age; she was alternately over-protective of her daughters, or withdrawn and hostile to them.  What Serena could remember of her father—her gentle, melodic-voiced father!—Papa with his tawny skin, his beautiful thick-lashed eyes so dark as to appear black, a scent of something like cinnamon on his breath—was that he’d been a fastidious man who dressed with care, at five foot seven inches no taller than his Caucasian wife and smaller-boned than she, with glinting wire-rimmed eyeglasses that were always crooked on his delicate nose; born in Delhi, India, Serena’s father had come to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in psychology at George Mason University; he met Serena’s mother in a section of Psych 101, an enormous lecture course in which she’d been enrolled.  Phyllis imagined herself an intensely spiritual person, in opposition to her secular-Protestant parents; impulsively she married soft-spoken Shahid Dayinka who’d been smitten with her golden-red crimped hair, her fair freckled Caucasian skin and dazzling toothpaste smile.  Each would turn out to have made an irrevocable error.  To Phyllis’s astonishment, Shahid Dayinka suffered from myriad health problems—he was irritable, anxious, prone to “nervous stomach upsets” and “respiratory ailments”—an insomniac, he was addicted to barbiturates; to get through a lengthy teaching day (now at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where he’d been hired as an assistant professor) he took amphetamines.  Preparing his classes he  became increasingly anxious and short of breath, he had difficulty communicating with undergraduates, his powerful medications left him groggy and dazed; his students wrote cruel evaluations speaking of his sub-literate English—his biased grading; it was Mr. Dayinka’s failure to amuse his undergraduates that sealed his doom, undergraduates will not forgive you for boring them.  Brazenly reading the student newspaper, yawning, talking to one another, even sleeping, though Professor Dayinka pleaded with them Attention please!  Let us have quiet in here please!  For those who are trying to hear me--

          He could not continue.  He took a medical disability leave.  Without tenure, Mr. Dayinka would not be kept on at the University, his contract was voided.  One day when Serena and her sisters returned from school, a day that had not seemed so very different from any other day after their father had ceased working at the University, their mother told them, “Your father has gone, your father has gone away to be sick.  Your father has left us and will not be returning.”  Phyllis’s greeny-amber eyes shone with tears of righteous anger.  Her mouth was a thin bitter line.  She never wept.  She never wept that Serena observed.  She never explained the circumstances of Serena’s father’s departure though years later Serena would learn from her sisters the astonishing fact that he’d had killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates, dying alone in a motel twenty miles away.  Never a drinker, Mr. Dayinka had managed to drink a quarter-bottle of whiskey which alone would have had the authority to stop his heart.  Serena’s mother would never forgive such a despicable act, she told her daughters that weakness in a man is the most shameful thing.  The Fergusons had been adamantly opposed to their daughter  marrying a dark-skinned foreigner—Delhi-born, a Hindu!—what had she been thinking?  And now these three daughters, unmistakably mixed-blood.

          Serena’s mother took money from the Fergusons to send Serena, the smartest of her daughters, as she was the lightest-skinned, to a “posh” private school in Baltimore.  “You need to meet people who can help you.  You will need help, from such origins.”  In this private school, Quaker-affiliated, Serena Dayinka thrived: like a young filly running her heart out, desperate to excel she began a model student.  Art, poetry, music, journalism, theater.  Everyone’s favorite.  Most of her friends were Caucasian girls.  Their parents adored her.  Very pretty and petite and sharp-tongued she intimidated the Caucasian boys, though they were drawn to her creamy-pale skin, beautiful eyes and “exotic” features and long shimmering dark-glossy hair.  Serena was influenced in her art by the savage unabashed narcissism of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, her poetry was “deeper” and “more spiritual.”

          It was her poetry that had drawn Andre Gatteau to her, of course.  And Andre Gatteau’s poetry, that had drawn Serena to him.

          Andre had asked Serena only politely about her family.  Andre Gatteau was not one to invite confidences, even in circumstances of physical intimacy.  In her bright bemused voice Serena told him that her parents had been “nice enough” but “utterly bourgeois” with the “usual middle-class pretensions” —though her father was from Delhi and had a Ph.D. in psychology he’d become “hopelessly Americanized.”  

          He’d died—of a heart attack—when Serena was just nine, she said.  She’d scarcely known him.  And she and her mother were “not on easy terms.”  So calmly Serena spoke, so without self-pity, Andre squeezed her hands, in sympathy.  Both Serena’s small child-hands in one of Andre’s enormous hands.  How she loved him, then!  How love passed between them, in that vulnerable moment!  It was the very start of their relationship, their first week as lovers.  “Sometimes it’s for the best, Serena,” Andre said.  “Not to be on easy terms with one’s parents.”  Gently he’d cradled her in his arms, kissed the tremulous vein at her forehead.  In turn, Serena had not asked Andre much about his background for what she wished to know, what was essential in Andre Gatteau, was contained in his sparely crafted elegiac poetry.   All poets secrete their deepest selves in their art.  The person you are likely to meet is but an imposter.

          Because it is happening continuously without end as the Heart Sutra is forever being chanted it has not happened yet in the borrowed house on Edgehill Lane. 

          Has to uncoil his legs!  Can’t bear the posture another moment, his body is wracked in pain.  Like great benumbed snakes his sinewy-muscled legs have been coiled together for nearly ninety minutes.  And his bladder aches, he must stumble out of the sesshin room quickly and get to the drafty closet-sized lavatory just outside.

          Urinating into the ancient stained toilet, what bliss!  The truest bliss of the long strained morning, Andre thinks.

          He has been distracted, thinking of the woman. And of the child.  He had not wanted Serena to have a child, he’d made it clear to Serena from the start that his life could not include a second family, Serena had assured him yes she understood, of course.  And yet: Serena had become pregnant.  And yet: Serena had convinced him, they must have this child.

          Your last-born child, Andre.  Another son!  But this one you will love, your life is settled now.  Everything has fallen in to place now.  I promise, I will be as exemplary a mother as I am a poet!  

                   Come here, go away poor raggedy Papa
                   Nothing in my hands but crumpled old paper

          A refrain from one of Serena Dayinka’s mock-elegies for her past. mesmerizing to the audience at the Waterloo Arts Festival.  And how captivating Serena’s presentation of herself, understated, yet impassioned; coolly restrained, yet sensuous; she wore a crimson silk shirt and black silk trousers, black leather lace-up shoes on child-sized feet, her skin was creamy-caramel and her lips plum-colored and her long glossy black hair shimmered nearly to her waist; on her head a man’s black fedora hat tilted at a rakish angle.  The crowd was wild for her: of the “emerging” poets on the program that evening, Serena Dayinka was the star.

          In the audience was Andre Gatteau.  And afterward at a party there was Andre Gatteau brought to meet Serena Dayinka by friends of Andre’s, knowing he’d wanted to meet the young woman but was reluctant to approach her.  They’d shaken hands, they’d stared and smiled at each other—how much shorter Andre Gatteau was, than Serena had envisioned: yet how powerfully built the man was, how luminous a presence, rich dark-ebony skin, broad flaring nostrils, deep-set almond eyes, the shy curve of his mouth.  On his forehead, a small sickle-shaped scar.  His nubby graying hair was trimmed short as a cap, in the earlobe of his right ear he wore a small gold stud.

          Serena had been reading Andre Gatteau for years.  Since her early twenties as a M.F.A. student at Johns Hopkins.  Of the poets a generation or two preceding hers, Andre Gatteau was the most acclaimed.  His work appeared frequently in the New Yorker.  Linked sonnets, ingeniously orchestrated sestinas, ballads, beautifully crafted work like iron filigree exploring the poet’s past as a descendant of slaves coming of age in the 1950s in Lakeland, Florida.  You could surmise from the poetry that Andre’s father had been a construction worker who’d died young; the family had scattered, but Andre had been singled out for a scholarship to Jesuit school where naturally he’d thrived.  Like a young eagle soaring high over Lakeland, Florida he’d left the home of his birth on scholarships, fellowships, residencies at distinguished universities, his was a singular  American-literary success story, the more remarkable in that Andre Gatteau avoided outright racial themes in his work, political stridency, overstatement; he explored his slave-heritage, and the identity-conflict of black Americans—is one essentially black, or American?—the question first brought to public consciousness in the 1960s by the activist-visionary Malcolm X.  These were powerful themes but so delicately and ironically presented, in Andre Gatteau’s poetry, the effect was of a glass rod tapped against crystal, not a raised voice, still less a howl of execration.  Here was a brilliant black poet whose heritage was more clearly Wallace Stevens than Langston Hughes; whose predecessors were Donne, Herbert, Marvel.

          For such poetry, Andre Gatteau was widely acclaimed.  By the Caucasian literary establishment particularly.

          Here was poetry to engage the brain, not merely the groin.
          Here was poetry we will all want to read and discuss!
          Here was poetry we will want to reward.

          Still Andre had been insulted.  Plenty of times.  Sometimes subtly, sometimes not-so.  Though he’d done all he could do to distinguish himself from black political-activist poetry still there were those who wished to reduce him to the color of his skin.  Serena herself had witnessed an extraordinary incident at the annual luncheon of the American Academy of Arts and Letters when an older Caucasian poet, white-haired, drunk and swaying on his feet, remarked to Andre, “You people win all the prizes now.  Sure, I know—it’s your turn.  God knows we can’t begrudge you.  We had a good long run.”

          Her refrain from “Raggedy Papa” he’d quoted to Serena, that first night.  After the party, in Serena’s hotel room.  Poor ragged Papa like crumpled paper.  He’d said, “You’ve been reading Roethke, little Serena.”

          Serena blushed.  It was true!  Andre laughed, and kissed her.

          The first time, so sweet.  Their mouths tasted of wine.  Serena thought This is the happiness of my life. This is why I have lived.

          Three years, seven months.  Serena Dayinka and Andre Gatteau have been together.

          Though, Serena must concede, they have not always lived together.  For Andre had at all times to have a separate residence, where Serena, and then Serena and the child, were not really welcome.

          A place to which he could withdraw, when he needed to be alone.

          You might say—in fact, this is plausible—that Andre hasn’t left Serena even now, he has just gone away to be alone.

          This is what some of her friends have suggested.  Serena knows better, she knows what has passed between them, still Serena wishes to believe.

          “Daddy will be here.  Daddy is on his way.”

          She has managed to feed the child a few spoonfuls of cereal.  A small quantity of orange juice in which aspirin has been dissolved.  The child sniffles, shivers.  That hacking little cough.  Gently Serena strokes little Andre’s feverish skin—at the doctor’s he’d had a temperature of 101F but it must be higher now, his skin burns. 

          Recalling how she’d once seen Andre lifting the baby, when little Andre had been just a few months old.  With an expression of such pained tenderness, she’d loved the man passionately, though knowing even then that she could not trust him, that he could not love her as she loved him nor even as he wished to love her, there was something in him wounded, raw and unhealed; yet love for Andre Gatteau and for his infant son came so strong, Serena felt that she might faint.  If he would look at me that way she thought. Only then. 

          She does not want to hurt her child!  She isn’t a deranged woman, still less a vindictive woman.  It is entirely up to Andre: the choice isn’t hers.

          Andre isn’t one to quarrel, Andre never raises his voice.  On the contrary Andre lowers his voice when he is most furious, you cannot know what Andre is saying.

          Andre’s stony face, stony silence.  The absence of Andre Gatteau even when the man was present.

          Even when the man lay beside Serena in their bed.

          Even when the man made love to Serena in their bed.

          Already it is 11:09 A.M., Serena stares at the clock.  How is it so late?   Are their lives passing so swiftly?  Panicked she gropes for her pen.  A letter she’d been writing in a desperate scrawled hand

          Dear Gerald & dear Danielle please forgive me but I know you can’t you won’t  you will hate & despise me you should not forgive me for I have defiled your beautiful home you’d so cared for, this property with such scenic views 39 Edgehill Lane how grateful little Andre & his mother are to be here homeless otherwise truly I am sorry to defile    your precious house, sorry to stain the polish of this hardwood floor where little Andre & I are basking in the sun it’s a chill cleansing  sun I have opened my legs to the sun & the sun has pierced me & that is the risk I have taken, I do not regret. Do you think that I don’t know that you have been in touch with Andre you knew where he’d gone & you lied to me, I think that all of you have lied to me from the start & I was naïve enough to believe you. What has happened is  necessary, I know you won’t believe me. When the truth is revealed. When Andre Gatteau is exposed. His cruel stony heart.  He has fled to his Zen retreat, I think. He is hiding in the mountains. Where I can’t follow him, I am too exhausted. You will ask Andre why this is necessary, he will tell you. (Of course he won’t!  He will never speak of this. Andre Gatteau is the most vicious of liars: the one who refuses to speak.) You will beg him as I have done & he will turn from you. You know he refused to see me since Feb. 16. Now it is March 31, this is the end. The child & I are so very tired. The child is sick, his breath smells sour. Andre refused to see his son unless he could see his son “unaccompanied” by the son’s mother—brought to him by a designated “neutral party”—nor would he answer my calls. So many calls!  It isn’t money we want from him, it is his love. It is Daddy’s love the child wants. Which is why the child is ill, Daddy has ceased to love him. Daddy has ceased to love his mother. There must be some reparation. There will be reparation.  I am too exhausted now to make the drive into the mountains & they would turn me away, I am not one of them.  Forgive me I have no choice. Andre has cursed us. The child is flawed, & I am to blame.  There will be reparation. The justice of the sharp blade, the flashing light that cuts through all subterfuge.                                                               Your grieving but not vindictive friend S.D.                                     

          Young she’d learned.  Soon after her father went away.  That look of desire in a man’s eyes.  The thrill of the involuntary, the not-willed.  Her pleasure was increased by this knowledge, she was taking from the man something he would not have freely given.  For Andre Gatteau had not wanted to love her, he had not wanted to desire her so passionately, she was so much younger than he:  seventeen years.  “People will think that you’re my daughter.  My beautiful ‘mixed-blood’ daughter.”   Especially it troubled Andre, that his oldest daughter was nearly Serena Dayinka’s age and would surely think of him with contempt. 

          Serena was never to meet this daughter, who lived in San Francisco and from whom Andre was estranged.  Serena was never to meet any of Andre Gatteau’s relatives.

          In triumph thinking  I will be his only family she thought.  And when she was pregnant The child and I, we will be Andre Gatteau’s family. Only us!

          It was so, as an ambitious young poet Serena Dayinka could not help but think of her radically elevated position in the literary world: the lover of Andre Gatteau.  In time, the wife.

          In time—for Serena’s love for Andre did not preclude such shrewdly pragmatic thoughts—the literary executrix of Andre Gatteau’s estate.

          It was Serena who, once they were living together on a more or less daily basis, when Andre was poet-in-residence at Amherst College and Serena taught part-time at the University of Massachusetts, insisted upon organizing Andre’s papers: more than a dozen boxes of carelessly filed manuscripts, letters, documents dating to the 1970s.  “Your papers are valuable, Andre.  Your archive.  You must know this.”

          He knew.  He was not a vain man but he’d acquired a sense of his own worth as a poet, the quality of his achievement set beside most of his contemporaries.  But his sense of himself was one of struggle, embattlement.  His slave-ancestry heritage, his working-class background.  His sympathy for those of his own kind, though rarely now his life intersected with theirs.

          And it was Serena, when she was pregnant, who urged Andre to draw up a will.  “I mean a ‘real’ will, Andre.  Executed by a lawyer.  Not something you’ve scribbled on a piece of paper.”

          Andre shuddered, and looked away.  His eyes were large, mournful, frequently threaded with fine broken capillaries, with curious thick-skinned eyelids, like a turtle’s;  strange haunted beautiful eyes, in which there was a glisten of panic.  Serena understood that the prospect of drawing up a last will and testament terrified this man who wrote with such elegant stoicism of death in his finely crafted poems.

          She said, laying her hand on his arm, “My father died without leaving a real will, Andre.  It was a terrible thing to have done, my mother was devastated.”

          “We can’t have that, darling.  We can’t have anyone devastated by a man dying.”

          Andre spoke quietly, dryly.  Serena laughed uneasily, and kissed him. 

          And so, too, in the matter of Andre Gatteau’s will, drawn by an attorney in Amherst, Massachusetts shortly before the birth of his son, Serena triumphed.  Except—was this ominous?--Andre failed to share with her any of the details of the will, to whom he was leaving his estate, only just the fact that yes, he’d named Serena Dayinka literary executrix.

          Serena thought And next, we will be married.

          “Baby?  Daddy is in his way.”

          The child is feverish, fretting.  Pushing irritably at Mummy’s hand as Mummy wipes his runny nose.

          As the Heart Sutra chant continues Gone gone beyond. Gone all the way beyond Bodhi Svaha!

          The beautiful razor-sharp Japanese knives she has laid reverently on the hardwood floor.  The steak knife, the chef ‘s knife, the paring knife—instruments of surgical precision.  The child has ceased to be distracted by the glittering blades for the child’s eyelids are drooping with fatigue and his scant child-breath has a curious orangey-sharp odor.  He is ill, he will never be right. Andre is right. This is for the best.  She is not a vindictive woman but reparations must be made.  There is shame here, the flawed child, the cast-aside female, an old story that requires retelling.  In a sequence of engagingly colloquial villanelles—for which she’d received an award from the Poetry Society of America—Serena Dayinka had brilliantly retold the tales of Rapunzel, Thumbelina, The Ice Maiden, The Beggar Maid, for these are tales of female hurt, exploitation, and reparation that require retelling.  Andre Gatteau had much admired the linked villanelles, he’d praised the young woman poet and Andre Gatteau’s praise was not readily forthcoming.

          Except he’d chided her, for appropriating lines, images, cadences from certain predecessors.  His was a sharp unsparing ear.  He’d recognized immediately the lines she’d owed to Roethke.  Come here go away poor raggedy Pappa   Nothing in my hands but crumpled paper.  Andre had recognized the borrowing but chosen to ignore the meaning as in their most intimate moments he held himself just perceptibly from her, in the most subtle opposition, perhaps it was a fear of being engulfed by her terrible ravenous need, or by his own.

          She’d begged of him Why.

          She’d begged of him Please don’t do this.

          She’d begged of him But there is your son, you must love him even if you don’t love me.

          Dreamily she has opened her legs—her legs are bare, she is naked beneath the soiled terrycloth bathrobe she’d found in one of the bedroom closets, must’ve belonged to the woman who lived in this house whose name Serena has forgotten, she has opened her legs to the sun’s sudden warmth and she is reckless, eager.  There is Andre Gatteau looming above her, his dark battered beautiful face taut with love, his eyes fixed upon hers, how fleshy and solid the man’s chest, how soft his berry-colored nipples, and the wiry gray tangle of hairs covering his torso like a pelt, the small dinning  voice of irony at the back of Serena Dayinka’s head is silenced, the sneering nasal voice that has so exhausted her, she is stricken now with silence, dumbness; his body is scalding, something molten is being poured into her.  It is the great happiness of Serena’s life, for which Serena has been waiting all her life.  This man is her savior.

          Yes this is true.  It is a bare raw truth.  It will be the fatal truth of Serena Dayinka’s life.

          Except the child wakes her, whimpering and squirming.  What is wrong with this child!  From little Andre she has caught a chest cold, a fever, her stomach swirls with nausea though she has not eaten anything but stale cornflakes dashed with rancid-smelling milk in recent memory.  And the over-sweetened orange juice she has been giving the child laced with aspirin.  When she’d been taking the lorazepam she’d nodded helplessly off into a sour dreamless sleep and awakened hours later with a start, sweating and panicked and terrified that something had happened to the child who’d slipped away from beside her.  At that time they’d slept in one of the beds, in fresh clean sheets that quickly became soiled, smelly from their bodies.  Serena remembers a shameful scene in the glaring-bright bathroom, Serena naked and sweating on her knees groping for the last of the small white pills, she’d dropped the pill and it had rolled behind or beneath the lilac-colored ceramic toilet and she was desperate to retrieve it for otherwise a night of insomniac hell lay before her like the Sahara vast and uncharted and with no visible horizon. Oh God help me.  I can’t continue like this.

          She’d been wounded, and she’d been anxious, months ago seeing one of Andre’s poems in the New Yorker which he hadn’t shown her, a Zen poem it seemed to be, sharp and bright and aimed for the jugular, in a terse elliptical style unlike Andre Gatteau’s characteristic style.  (Andre had claimed that he’d shown her a draft, but Serena was sure he had not.  How could she have forgotten any poem of Andre’s?   She was avid for his poetry as for his most secret innermost life, withheld from her.)  The speaker in the poem broods about his raging sexuality, his “poor, blind, stunted desire”—as if it were an sickness to be overcome; she’d been humiliated seeing such a poem in this prominent magazine which all their friends read, knowing that everyone who knew her and her relationship to Andre Gatteau would think of her in terms of the poem, and feel pity for her: that Serena Dayinka’s revered lover considered his desire for her as something to be healed.

          How she hated Zen Buddhism!   All pseudo-mystical Eastern religions, Serena hated!   Her father had never spoken disparagingly of his Hindu relatives in India but he’d considered himself a “rationalist”; her mother had but the vaguest Protestant-Christian beliefs; Serena had come of age amid a defiantly Americanized mixed-blood generation born in this country of foreign-born parents, her allegiance was to secular America, her best poems were cast in the idiom of the American colloquial, startling at times in their use of slang, even obscenities.  She hated the solemn pieties of religion, especially the austerity, asceticism, lunar chill of Zen.  As Andre was drawn to Zen, so Andre was turning away from her, she knew.  From her, and from the child.

          Wanting to be a monk, as once he’d wanted to be a Jesuit priest.  How ridiculous her lover was, sitting zazen.   At his age, coiling his legs into the lotus position!  Through Andre’s study doorway late one night when he hadn’t come to bed she’d observed him, her heart thudding with scorn, and resentment.  Andre Gatteau the most sexual of men, the most needy of men, and the most vain, seeking Nirvana; seeking transcendence, and escape from all desire; escape from the merely personal and petty and finite.

          She’d wanted to laugh at him, to shame him.  But she knew better, she dared not offend him even playfully for he would not speak to her for days to punish her; he would be cold with little Andre, he would stay away from the house.  In silence Serena retreated to their bed.  

          That was the beginning, she thinks.  The first clear sign.

          Which of the knives will she use?--Serena has not yet decided.  The steak knife is unwieldy, so long.  The chef’s knife is a chopper!  The paring knife is small and practical.  When she’d first seen the knives on the magnetized band quickly she’d turned away, suffused with a kind of excited horror.  For as soon as the woman welcomed Serena and the child into her beautiful house, speaking so kindly to her, touching her gently as you might touch a convalescent, it had been a death sentence to Serena.  This house!   Fifteen-foot ceilings, walls of glass, skylights and a redwood deck and bright-colored sofas, pillows, rugs; original works of art on the walls, shelves of books, here was a long-settled life, a married life, the woman and the man equals in their relationship.  Envy struck Serena with the force of nausea, her soul was extinguished.  Knowing then that she, Serena Dayinka,  would never inhabit a house like this.  She would never inhabit a life like this. Never a marriage like this.  The places to which Andre Gatteau brought her were always temporary.  Rented houses, apartments and flats owned by friends, university residences.  These were furnished places, owned by others.  She did not inhabit a house of her own with Andre Gatteau because Andre Gatteau did not wish to inhabit a house with her and now it seemed that Andre Gatteau did not wish to inhabit any place with her nor did Andre Gatteau wish to acknowledge her existence.

          “Just until things get settled, Serena.  I think that you and little Andre will be very comfortable here…”

          This chattering woman, kindly and condescending so that Serena had all she could do to keep smiling, tugging at little Andre’s hand to keep him by her side, saying Yes thank you Mrs. Nichelson how kind you are thank you!

          It was a death sentence.  The jeering voice that had persecuted Serena through adolescence spoke now so vividly it seemed to Serena that the chattering white woman must hear.  You will never have this.  No man will ever provide you with this.  How contemptible you are, how pathetic.  You are not even a good poet.  You are not even young any longer.  He will love other women.  He will have sex with other women.  Since he’s been your lover, he has had sex with other women.  You know this.  Did you think that having his child would make a difference?  Did you think that he would love you, and marry you?  He will outlive you, he will outlive the beautiful son. 

          Not the first time Serena has cut herself, she’d begun at the Quaker school at age fourteen.  Fine razor-strokes on the insides of her slender arms, where her sleeves would hide the feathery little wounds.  Meant to sting, and to comfort.  Blood sprang forth so readily, like a caress.  She would press her tongue to the scratch, lick the salty secret blood.  

          Later, she began to cut the insides of her thighs (that seemed to her, no matter how she fasted, thick, heavy, flabby, ugly), inside her curly black pubic hair the pale soft skin of the groin. 

          Cutting herself as a girl Serena had used a razor, never a knife.  Now, she could not have said why, though in a poem she might have explored the subtlety of such distinctions, the thought of using a razor is repellent.  A knife is required, but not an ordinary knife: a knife that is a work of art, savage, gleaming in the late-winter sunshine.  “This one.  Andre?”   Serena lifts the chef’s knife, which is surprisingly heavy.  A chef working with such a knife must develop strong wrist muscles, this is a serious instrument. 

          “Yes, Andre.  Good!  I thought this would please you.”

          Serena only now recalls, it’s a measure of her dazed-fever state of exhaustion and exhilaration that she only now recalls, Andre Gatteau has a brilliantly unsettling sonnet in his first collection of poems Enchanted Voyager, about the ritual seppuku suicide of the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima in 1970, at the age of forty-five.  He will understand.  It has been his will all along.

          It is 11:55 A.M.   And now it is 11:59 A.M.  She is no longer waiting—is she waiting?—is her heart pounding absurdly, in childlike anticipation?---no longer waiting for the call on the cell phone, or for the car turning into the long graveled driveway, or for a firm knock on the door and the man’s uplifted voice Serena?  Little Andre?  No longer waiting Serena has shuttered her heart, in her mouth there is a cold stony taste that is the taste of the poem, the purest of poems, which the poet recognizes only when she has uttered the final words, the final syllables, and placed in position the final punctuation mark.  For much of the morning close by on Edgehill Lane a chainsaw has been in use.  Serena hates the high-pitched shrieking but sees the logic that, if the child begins to scream, if Mummy can’t control his screaming, the din of the chainsaw, and an accompanying wood-grinder, will mask the sound, neighbors won’t hear.  (If there are neighbors within earshot.  Serena isn’t sure but she doubts that there are neighbors within earshot of the Nickelsons’ house, these expensive properties on Edgehill Lane are so large.)  Meticulously Serena has planned, her fever-dream of the previous night will guide her: she will hold little Andre down by straddling him and with both her knees pinioning his little body, he will protest, and squirm, begin to kick, thrash and cry, for he can be a mutinous child, strong as a panicked cat despite his illness and the drug she’s been feeding him,  Bayer’s baby aspirin mashed in orange juice.  Without hesitation she will cut--swiftly, she will slash—the veins and arteries in little Andre’s left arm, soothing him Hush!  Hush baby! There is no pain just below the elbow; she will slash the veins and arteries in the right arm, just below the elbow.  So swiftly this will be accomplished, the child will think it is some sort of game, he is not a suspicious child and will be utterly bewildered.  And truly Serena believes, there will not be much pain.  Truly Serena believes, for Serena loves the child more than life itself, far more than her own life, she would never wish to hurt him.

          Canny Serena has thought to have a supply of baby diapers, a pillow from a sofa, a roll of toilet paper to absorb some of the blood.  For she is fearful that the sight of the child’s spilling blood will unnerve her.


          “Hush, sweetie.  Mummy hasn’t gone anywhere.”

          Critically Serena examines her own arms, looking for veins, arteries. Slender pale-skinned arms, how many times he’d kissed the insides of her arms with not the slightest  awareness of the feathery-thin faded scars from her girlhood, wrists so small he could circle them with his thumb and index finger gripping each of her wrists above her head as he eased himself into her, always tentatively at first, as if fearful of hurting her, for she was so small, she weighed at least ninety pounds less than Andre, always he held himself back, she could not draw him deeply enough into her, deep, deep…never deeply enough.

          Always he’d murmured to her Beauty, my beauty.  My beauty in an ecstasy of desire, possession.  Always he’d sated himself in her body though he would not penetrate her deeply enough, he never sought her soul.

          Nor did he sleep close beside her.  Never in her arms.  Often restless, waiting until Serena slept, or he believed she slept, then slipping away to another part of the house.  Or slipping from the house altogether.

Though they’d made a baby together.   Somehow, that had happened.

          In the mountains he is sitting zazen.  He is observing her, she is convinced that he can see her though his figure is hidden from her, her eyes are not strong enough to perceive him.  He thinks I can’t do it!  I can do it, I am stronger than he is.

          It is 12:12 P.M.  It is the very last day of March but Serena has forgotten the year.  Serena has forgotten where she is, exactly.  Whose (borrowed) house this is.  Close by, the chainsaw has abruptly ceased.  The wood-grinder has ceased.  But the lawn crew truck has not departed, Serena will wait for the noise to resume.   Adjusting the shawl around the feverish child, wiping his runny noise, his clammy-damp forehead, tenderly Serena kisses each of his eyelids and his parched panting lips.  “Sweetie?   Daddy is on his way.”

          At Lost Lake the Heart Sutra is being chanted.  Another incense candle is shrinking to a stump.  It is past noon, their break will be at 12:30 PM, others have given up and slipped away from the sesshin room but Andre Gatteau wracked in arthritic pain and his bladder (yet again) urging him to stumble away to urinate is determined to continue until the Zen master releases them, it has become a matter of pride.  If anyone knows Andre’s identity, he must protect his pride.   He will push himself to the limits of his endurance.   How far he has come already on this journey!  Less than forty-eight hours, less than five hundred miles yet how far, unfathomable.  He is a poet, he seeks purity.  You cannot be a poet if your mind is muddled, muddy.  You cannot be a poet if you are distracted.  Recalling how as he’d approached Lake Scroon the other afternoon he’d passed a dismaying literalness of manmade artifacts: taverns and gas stations and automobile/ truck/ motorcycle dealerships adored with fluttering banners, house trailers propped up on cinder blocks in the pine woods, bungalows, habitations that appeared to be no more than concrete foundations in the rocky earth, like bomb shelters.  There were bait shops,  yet more taverns, roadside woodframe churches, bullet-ridden road signs, lakeside cabins, small boats on trailers, junked vehicles in the ditch by the side of the road, mattresses at the roadside, abandoned furniture as if families had thrown off their chains in a frenzy of repudiation and loss.  The   poet finds little poetry in such sights, only the residue of irony which leaves a bitter taste on the tongue.  The poet has come to this place to escape irony.

          In Zen there is no irony.  In the mountains there is no irony.

          This fifth hour of zazen, or is it the sixth?  Through the strain of concentration the poet has glimpsed the merest glimmer of bliss, fleeting as a flash of heat lightning in a summer sky, in that instant his soul is flooded with hope, with something like strength, the thought comes to him I will call her.  At the break. I can do this. I will do this!   It is the revelation for which the seeker has come to Lost Lake Mountain though it is not the revelation he has expected.  As the Heart Sutra continues in the reedy chanting voices of the earnest young No color   sound  smell  taste   touch   object of mind   no realm of eyes and no realm of mind   No ignorance and also no extinction of ignorance   There is no path  There is no way that is not the path.  On the altar the candle begins to gutter, the pale flame quivers as from an expelled breath.