After writing clinically about mystery in my last post, I got thinking about how it enters the text. First, I checked Dictionary.com and came up with these two appropriate definitions:
- anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown: the mysteries of nature.
- any truth that is unknowable except by divine revelation.
It’s interesting that nature should come up, for I had already started thinking about how images of nature resonate for me. The end of Amy Hempel’s story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” came to mind–about a young woman who fails her dying best friend in the end. Early on in the story, the narrator tells her dying friend about a chimp who was taught sign language, then used it to sign a lie.
After the narrator’s best friend has died, the story ends this way:
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.
(Quoted from Hempel, Amy. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” at http://www.fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemetery-where-al-jolson-is-buried .)
I read that and have nothing to say. I’m filled with fear, that I will never find so perfect an ending to any story I write.
Then I open Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, a novel about a Jewish couple who meet in Prague but then are separated by the Nazi invasion. The novel is about their lifelong effort to extricate themselves from the trauma, the husband from a distance, while guiltily knowing what happened to so many, and the wife from her interment in the camps. Early on in the text, I find this passage in the wife’s POV:
When the Vltava freezes, it turns the color of an oyster shell. As a child, I watched men rescue swans trapped within its frozen current, cutting them out with ice picks to free their webbed feet.
I stop reading, stunned by the perfection of that image. It sets up the writer/reader contract, but more than that, it connects me with a larger cruelty–one of the most graceful of birds caught unaware in a flash freeze, thereby needing rescue by man-made methods as crude and hazardous as the entrapping ice.
And yes, I think of Darwin, of his inability to connect a loving God with the cruelty of nature.
Both authors point to mystery, that which remains unexplained, unknown, except by divine revelation. Who otherwise can explain the premature death of a young woman or the agony of the holocaust?