The short story, “The Summer Before the Fall,” is part of TLR’s current issue.
I never think my dreams are weird, because even in their most fantastical distortions I usually recognize the seed of their origin and can map them, one to one, to an earlier event in my mental life. The same is true of my writing, unless too much time has passed. The impetus behind this story was the left inner wing of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights”: “Paradise and the Creation of Eve.” I had written stories in oblique response to the center, right wing, and exterior shutters, and I planned to do the same for this one. But somehow, looking long enough at the picture, at the image of God holding Eve’s wrist just before he gives her to Adam, an admonitory finger raised—I had to write about them directly. I remembered how Milton had depicted Eve as turning back from Adam to seek her more pleasing reflection in the lake again. That was not my Eve.
My other stories had taken my own experiences as a point of departure, but in this one, the mythic involuntarily drew on my experiences of childhood, love affairs, childbirth, parenting, and mental illness. I had read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything, which in part tells the more straightforward story of Cain and Abel, and then of Noah, in the same casual, everyday tone he uses in My Struggle. His in media res tone accentuates the sense of ominously flat mystery. It is not something I could imitate, but it suggested a new possibility: walking the line between recounting and reinterpreting, bridging inner and outer sources, I could make up anything I wanted to. But I wanted it to feel lived.
“Everything in the story has at least some basis in Biblical text,” Joe Ponepinto wrote me, “except for God appearing in the form of a dog.” The editors at TLR wanted to know where that odd piece of the story had come from.
There is a simple answer. I wrote the first draft of the story two summers ago in a campground at Acadia National Park, when our recently inherited dog became ill—a tick-borne illness misdiagnosed as an ACL tear—and couldn’t walk. My husband took our young sons hiking while I stayed with our dog, each of the next four days. It was rare for me to get that kind of concentrated time to write—that was the reason I had written more poems than stories for several years—and I was able to push through the “this is terrible” wall and keep the story alive enough to continue working on it when I got home. The black dog lying beside me became the story’s prime mover. He had struck me from the start as a slightly uncanny dog, a human embarrassed to be trapped in a dog’s body.
This perception must have sent me back to my childhood imagination, which is the real answer. For years as a child I had repeated fantasies of physically turning back into an animal, losing speech, becoming feral. Sometimes in my fantasies I would hang around the edges of a schoolyard, where I might be caught and slowly tamed again. I will leave all that to Freud. As an older child, I thought I would study animal behavior. But when younger, I felt a deep connection with animals and often felt reproved by them. I became a vegetarian when I was ten, because one night my rabbits thumped their feet and ran away from my hands, unwashed after I’d eaten meat. I have since read that rabbits are in fact sensitive to this. I also had a stuffed dog, as Cain does, and his eyes served me somewhat as Socrates’ daimon did: like an internal oracle, a conscience. I could never fix a name on my dog, but our dad had read us David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus when I was seven or eight, and sometimes I tried calling him Surtur, from that book, or Aslan, from the Narnia books.
Which is to say, to the extent I had a sense of God, it came from animals. As someone with a thoroughly scientific view of the world, including respect reserved for what is unknown and likely to remain unknown, I am a little embarrassed by my lifelong interest in religion. I find myself drawn to its myths and motives, but not in a way understandable to a believer. I think, in part, it provides me a symbolic way of thinking about different kinds of love, different kinds of knowing, and different kinds of power.
I recently read Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich and was struck by the multiple, independent expressions of a renewed connection with nature and with animals in those who returned to the poisoned land. Alexievich quotes the cameraman Sergei Gurin as saying, “I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.” And from Gitta Sereny’s Into that Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, I remember how Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, could rationalize everything except his inability to eat meat afterwards. Living in Brazil, he couldn’t bear to watch the cattle go by in the cattle cars, or to look into what his aversion meant.
None of this directly addresses why I’ve let God assume the body of a dog, only hints at it. I suppose I am saying that I’ve made God human. And that humans, at times, aspire to the unfallen condition of animals: to instinctively know and communicate and love the way animals do. But there is also the suggestion, in what I’ve written, that to be fallen is to project—or to recognize?—fallen-ness everywhere.