Prose garden ...

Aug 11, 1999 at 12:00 am

Gardener of Stars, a novel in progress, is an episodic conversation to a third party (the reader) of two women who are thrown together in a post-plague world by their own communal utopian fantasies while paradoxically separated temporally and spatially. In this episode, Gardener is trying to situate herself in a city of men and M. is a pseudo-captive of a polygamous cult.

Gardener of Stars
by Carla Harryman


We were up all night and played the game too long. I won it, because Sylvan has never played with a woman before: I had to make him let me. Now I feel sticky or punkish as a decaying log. Or puny in this Man’s World facing Sylvan, the old nemesis, across the planked symbol of civil negotiations. The sun is rising sooner or later on our thick-headed diplomacy.

On this side of the table we have what you want and on the other side of the table we have something else. He traces with a pencil the previous line he’d made dividing the table in two while speaking with a damp cloth wrapped around his head. One can see every feature of his face through it, but the features look trapped and I want to know if he’s sick.

It’s only a little toothache. He takes his head in his hands gently without disturbing the wrapping. Holding it over the table for me, he turns it around and asks me to touch the back at the dip of it where the spine would normally curl into it. His spine is still connected to the rest of his body and his words not coming from his mouth seem to well up out of the whole of him; although his head, the way he holds it, obscures the body and his speech.

A constant soft light replaces the shadows, and the candles are blown out one by one. The head is blowing our candle out. The whole world is a constant of liquid and light.

Today feels like the saddest day in the world, but I know that it isn’t. I only touch his head once, for I fear some kind of orgiastic event; although, I suspect it has already passed without my quite having identified it as such. The room takes the form of an ossuary; then the bones fade away and the head is placed back on the torso. Before long, Sylvan announces his departure. He also says that I will always be able to find him.

From then on, each time he tries to pacify me, I want to snap, but I have grown quite self-conscious of my own mouth, which seems to want to get larger and larger. I am gagging on an unknowable grief reminiscent of immersion in a hall of bones and melting wax and an odd damp that pours through us such that I never want to sleep. I seem to be almost permanently awake. But in this almost I am saying that for now there is hope and I am not quite yet a ghost.

Perhaps M. and I will again meet and hurt each other in the plants and shrubs and kick and scream beyond this. I want her to find me as I am in this world of men.

At night, Sylvan returns bravely to the same spot to tell me that the line is nowhere, that he only wants to think and dream, to be sensual, frightening and obscure rather than competitive. This means, in a sense, I could be stalking you as thought stalks its servant or the engineer. He draws a picture of a Popeye-like figure stealthily following a horsefly about to enter the cave of a deliciously blond wig.

Sly Sylvan of simplicity and slime and evening light and ruses, why do we have to be associated as if you hope to suck the dirt out from my fingernails to celebrate your own breath? Do you think you can threaten me? What makes you happy? And why do you draw me in as if you were M.?

Sylvan parts the wig in two. Pig tails are formed and the fly crawls up the neck of a young girl. He says all of these signs are you.

Sometimes I want to leave the world of recognition.

He isn’t ready for this, and he has an advantage over me. I can’t draw.


She couldn’t draw she said. While she was claiming this, I was missing her. These creeps were trying to make me part of their harem. The harem was already made up of Bonnie, Mary, Eugenia, Patty, Lilly, Gretchen, Gillian, Zoe and Fay. Some of these are my favorite names staged and here presented as future gold rush brides. It was possible to act out anything, then. There were also infants Lemur, Fox, Wolf and Bear and older children whose names escape me at the moment except the die-hard Babs who followed me around, because she was to keep an eye on me she said in her transparent voice that went back through generations of well-trodden hopelessness. Sometimes I’m taking care of you you rat came blithering out of my mouth, truncating the distance between this garish postapocalyptic event and my own normal childhood, which I often think of as covered by the desert winds from which it took its appetite and old appreciation for isolation. The motion picture sounds of creaking swings enhance my sense of self-drama through the memory of empty lots, gasoline, and the sound of water running through pipes in kitchens, marking a territorial privilege over the little lizards sunning outside under creosote plants. Could they tell that I had a heart or were they just relying on instinct? They all seemed to be in desperate need of child care: None of them were really adults, and the only thing they knew to do with children was dole out chores. My job was Babs of the hard-bitten face: the child who can’t even respond to insults.

One day I sat her down to explain to her first the word oxymoron and then to describe a magnificent and bucolic world of insults. Babs sat listlessly under the darkening skies as I repressed my desire to tie her to a tree, as my cousins had once done to me when my dutiful self-seriousness had bored them ...

Carla Harryman’s collection of experimental prose, There Never Was a Rose Without a Thorn, appeared from City Lights Books in 1995. Her novel, The Words: After Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre, is forthcoming from O Books.