Joanna Ruocco on “Monument,” winner of the 2017 Heavy Feather Story Prize:
“A room in my apartment has windows all around (a box of glass), and the weird shining black-green of magnolia leaves presses up to the glass (a box in black-green). I read ‘Monument’ in that room and traveled from my own black-green world into another. When I finished reading the story, I read it again. I thought, this story guards a dangerous secret but the secret is the story itself. ‘Monument’ repeats its greens, overlaps its blacks, folds its fables in on themselves. I love the play of surfaces, the act of surfacing that makes the story flutter. I love the clarity and the mystery of the language. I imagine the author composing it by hand, in mirror writing. I imagine getting a hold of that handwritten manuscript and reading, in a room of windows, its reflection in the glass. What you imagine after reading ‘Monument’ is part of ‘Monument.’ You become the other half of its troubling heart.”
I rode a train into the green valley. Twin sisters sat on the red seats facing me. They shared one shawl and one bunch of grapes and their hair was one black heart that framed their heads, which were touching inside of a special and violent privacy. Together they read through a stack of letters, and I watched.
B who was S?
I don’t know B are you sure we knew an S?
Yes B listen to this: S, I’ve run your question across the grate and can only answer no. No you can’t come another time. No we can’t play anymore. Please stop returning like a fool.
B how mean.
B this is your handwriting.
Oh B I remember he had an S on his shoes.
Scarf or ball B?
Good riddance then.
One twin wrote a note to the other on the back of an international envelope. Her sister read it and nodded sympathetically and then they looked at me. They were smiling like two nurses.
I looked out of the window at the green valley. It sped away and sped away. Sometimes the green would stop and it was as if a black horn had thrust through the earth and the view would go dark and smooth and I would try to slow it down—was it the head and the beak of a crow, was it a fall of hair or an iron spike or a portion of my house, my ruined house—what was it? But the green would return, the leaf-green valley with its leaf-green mind, which could never be the home of my heart.
The twins took photographs of each other inside the shawl. Each flash made them glow like a pink and living crystal.
B you are so beautiful.
Look B it’s like we’re in the pink desert with our bowls of tea.
B I miss it there.
Me too B.
I know B plus Fourth Prince.
Yes Fourth Prince.
We never got his picture.
One of the twins wore slippers. They were backless and sideless and red with a little hood where she could slip her toes inside. I watched her put them on and take them off with each swing of her leg and I thought of a magician I’d seen as a child who had hidden his head inside a giant hat and then slowly removed the hat to show that he no longer had a face and who faceless had pretended to try to comfort all the children. Hoo, Hoo, Hoo, he said, in a voice that bubbled up from somewhere beneath his skin, so that each of us was forced to imagine a hidden mouth, a trapped mouth, a smothered, useless mouth. Which to a child was—well it was. I may not have recovered.
I wanted to stand and take a walk down the aisle but was afraid of falling. The valley was becoming narrow, the green and the green and the black horn were closing in.
I was on the way to visit my cousin who was on display in a research hospital. When I thought of him I could picture his body: the three deep bowls in his chest, where in the middle bowl you could, at first, see the flutter of his heart and later his actual heart. Since I’d come home from the army, I’d got two bowls of my own, and now I put my hand over the third, which had just begun to form, and I thought hopefully of a future in which I might get to see the workings of my own heart but not have to see the thing itself. To see the pump beneath my skin—if that could be the sum of my unusual experience. Maybe I would not have to suffer as my cousin had. Maybe it would not surface.
The train car smelled of seafood and disinfectant, the black horn came and went and the green was all around, and the twins ate candied rose petals over a photo album.
Remember this B?
The hidden arena.
We got shushed B.
I know B but they secretly liked it.
The fun doesn’t have to stop B.
No B we won’t let it.
What did he call us B?
Black and wild B.
Are we B?
They let the question hang between them, and they smiled at each other and seemed to open and close their eyes in coded sequence. Their blinking had a sound, the fall and snap of a sheet in the hands of a capable orderly. I saw their privacy pass between them and it was firm as bone and colored black and I began to think that I was witness to the pearl of the black horn and the pearl was two female twins in a black-heart frame. But the green kept flashing. It was my mind. I could not stop watching it go.
Then the bare toe of the red-slippered twin brushed against my leg, and the little touch rescued me from the window and the valley’s pushy green, and then she slipped her toes back inside the red hood and seemed not to notice that anything had happened at all. I wanted to talk to her. I thought I might. She had made contact.
The train stopped. The conductor announced a delay. The train relaxed, the air was fresh, I could see people stepping out onto the grass.
B some air?
Yes please B.
I steeled myself for the shock of their separate heads. They held the shawl between them like a length of rope as they moved away down the aisle.
My chest itched as if some little industrious man were scooping away at my skin. I looked and looked and finally spotted the twins in the narrow green field between the train and the valley wall, which rose almost vertically toward its saw-toothed top. They had spread their shawl on the grass, and they were lying face to face, pulling each other’s hair and laughing. I thought, B, B, B, they must be, again and again without breath, and I wanted to hear for myself—this wild repetition meaning a wild closeness such as I had never known.
I walked the length of the train, bashfully, apologizing to anything. When I stepped out onto the grass, my ankle folded and I fell sideways like a noodle into the grass. Someone laughed, someone else burped.
The twins didn’t notice me as I approached, so deeply were they B, B, B in the sun. But when I arrived, when I was standing over them like a blind giant, they silently made room for me, they patted the spot where I was to sit. I joined them but they went on as if I were not there. I stared at my hands. I felt that my pants had shrunk. I was about to roll away through the grass and switch seats on the train and never again intrude on anyone, anywhere.
A little girl began to donkey kick in front of us, around us. She kicked and stared, kicked and stared, not at me, but at the twins. She had a simple face, flat and even, her tiny features crowded up around her nose. Her glasses were huge, her eyes too. She had the look of a wild goldfish caught between two rough fingers. Somewhere her parents were enjoying some good, good quiet.
She kicked again and couldn’t keep herself from staring at the twins; she stared long enough that they stopped their B, B, B, and turned toward her, and one of the twins made a gesture like come closer, come on. But the girl just stepped around in a little square of grass, spooked, and I could see that she was searching for the perfect thing to say, the thing that would secure her release. She shut her giant eyes and screamed, We have a new Pope! and each echo of her announcement bubbled around in the valley and returned and returned and with each return gained a tone that the little girl had not given it, an adult tone, indicating sarcasm or exhaustion. The earnestness of her pronouncement was lost. She took off kicking toward the train.
B like a pigeon in the smoke.
Just like B.
Now they thought of me. Red slipper squeezed my shoulder. She spoke to me directly.
Isn’t this all highly natural? It takes me back. This valley. Far back. It goes deep. Fable-deep.
B you’re right. Your eyes are pink.
Red slipper set her leg over my leg. She seemed to be setting some conditions. Her face floated in pink shadow and was the face of a wise and festive baby.
Tell me the fable of this valley. You.
She pointed at me. My third bowl thumped. I thought of myself as an old man made of salt, thudding across a colorless bridge to black, returning from black. I searched the edges of the valley for the darkest horn and saw only the leaf-green fall, without seam or break. So this is my mind, I thought. I’ll tell. Sure, I’ll tell.
Okay, I began, let me see.
I struggled past my tongue. She pressed my leg with her leg and her twin looked away, as if my voice, presenting itself, were immodest.
The fable of this valley, I said, begins with women. Women who worked in a tea field.
Right here? There’s not even a shadow of a field.
No, about a mile down.
I thought, This is where one would mine one’s memory. This is where one would pretend, where the fable would fill up with familiar friends, where the teller would drape a curtain over all known players to make new players. I could barely begin. While I hurtled down the narrow green, how could I begin? I was away, I had always been.
I stuck my hand into the ground and felt the fleshy snap of breaking root. To the deep. That’s where. In the bowl of my head. Through the window of the train—green, green, green, and black. I still had dreams of life.
Bear with me, I said. The women worked every day. Tirelessly. They knew very few people who were not themselves. They were known to each other so deeply that if they were tired one of them could nap on behalf of them all, and so their work went well and they were admired for their industriousness and rewarded with time off that they never took.
Visitors came through the valley often. This was once the way to the capital before the capital sunk and was covered by water and stone and then forgotten and rebuilt somewhere else, and the most frequent visitors were men traveling alone, on their way to find an opportunity or a cure. For the most part, the women weren’t moved by these visitors; they worked and drank tea and spoke to each other only of what had happened yesterday and of what would happen tomorrow.
B is this right?
It’s his fable B.
We are women too B and we cover it all.
We do B. We confer constantly.
The slipper had slipped off. Bravely, I took it in my hand and tried to hook its hood over her toes but missed and missed again. I pawed at her foot with my feminine tool. The twins exploded like stars underground. They laughed and laughed and hugged and rolled away and rolled back.
Red slipper gently pushed me to the ground, her hand filling my third bowl. This feels insane, she said, uncanny.
She knelt at my side and felt my first and my second and then took her twin’s hand and helped her feel them too.
I feel B. Three depressions. This one not as deep.
They ringed and rubbed my bowls with their same-shaped fingers. I tried to hover above the grass, not to require, not to weep. I told the little man, Shovel faster, make it deep, so they can feel. Open was the green and closed it was too and flashing, flashing, past the black of the horn. There was memory, forcing up through the earth, and I rose with it, hard, black and determined.
One day, I said, a man came to the valley. This man was in search of a monument. He’d learned of this monument when, eavesdropping by the quay, he’d heard a sea captain say to a little boy: A line of seals scooted out of the sea, they would not stop, they left the shore and went over the hill to the leaf-green valley, and on and on they went, and I followed, on and on until they reached a remarkable monument, someone’s impossible erection—a thick black horn sticking up from the earth, high as the sky and wider than your mother’s house—and what do you think the seals did? They scooted around the Black Horn, they circled it entirely, and then they went back toward the sea. But they were exhausted. They had dried out. All of them died in the sun of the valley and rotted and sank into the ground. I tell you what, said the sea captain, lifting the little boy’s shirt, Some journeys are not meant to be taken. Some journeys are insane.
And so, overcome by curiosity about the Black Horn, the man had come to the valley to see the monument for himself. When he asked the woman about it, he called it the Black Horn, as the sea captain had, but met with little success. Do you know about the Black Horn? he would ask a woman in the field, and she would float off between the tea plants and whisper to another woman and those two would link arms and move away together, down the rows, and this went on and on, resembling a formal dance with one desperate man in attendance. Finally, one of the women, before floating away, said, I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it. No one here can help you. Go away.
My heart pounded in my third bowl. It was a skinned animal that had come to dry out in the dip of my chest. The twins were sympathetic. Slow down, they said. We are listening. We are patient.
He could not try forever, I said. Not without reward. The man gave up. But he was upset. He’d traveled a long way to see the monument, but no one would help him.
B but why?
Trust the teller B.
No reason. He just wanted to see it, I said.
The train rumbled and shifted on its tracks.
I tried to sit up. They were not holding me down. Their hands were light, the air was light, the train was a big black sigh that had ended.
So, I said, the man set up camp near the field, but not too near, not wanting to alarm the women. He dealt with his disappointment by lying on his back in the leaf-green grass and threading the stars together.
How lovely B. A net.
No B a scarf!
Yes B yes B I see it. I see it.
Whatever you like, I said. Whatever you like. So, as the man lay weaving a scarf from the sky, one of the women approached. It was the one who had earlier admitted having heard of the monument. She came with her hands over her mouth. She waited until she was sure he understood that he must stay quiet, and then she told him what she knew. Nobody speaks of the monument, she said, because one of us killed herself there. And why did she? the man asked.
The train sounded, and the blast filled the valley. My heart quivered at the bottom of the bowl and blackness split my eye. Here was green across from green, I knew the color well, but blackness, oh blackness—I knew it better. I’d stood at its base, I could feel it even now, the rough, shingled skin of the horn of the earth, and my home was there, my ruin, in the shadow of the highest black. There was something I’d forgotten. It returned now, as the twins plunged their fingers toward my heart, as they slid down the side of my third and final bowl.
Go on. Don’t stop now.
Make it sound. Make it move.
B do you feel it?
Yes I feel it B.
The little girl, the pope’s herald, appeared in a train car window. She stared at me as the train rocked forward and backward and as the horn sounded and sounded again. The twins took turns listening to my chest. Red slipper raised my shirt.
The little girl raised her shirt, too, and pressed her bareness against the window and breathed against the glass and clouded her face and only her smoothness showed, and it put me in mind of other shows, other feminine demonstrations, which were guileless and easy, but which split the green of the home anyway. The little girl disappeared from the window and was replaced by her mother, whose face floated before her large, shadowy body. She stared at me as if I’d crossed the awful distance.
Gently, the twins touched. They explored my skin and the spot barely covering my heart and at times it seemed as if they were gently digging, too, gently as their curiosity would allow, and I thought, Fine, lay it bare, lay it bare.
B can it be?
Yes B we might get to see.
He made a scarf from the sky B.
Isn’t this wild B?
I stood at the base of the Black Horn, and a young woman stood there too, she smelled of chamomile, and my ruined house smoldered in the shadows. The woman went gray before my eyes. Are you dying? I asked her. I’m waiting for my man to show, she said. And I thought to myself, I have been away too long. My home is black, my heart is black, my heart must rise through the valley’s green. I must surface.
The train blasted. It moved down the tracks. I sat up in the green and watched the black go away and the twins waved to me from the window as if they were just arriving in the heart of my home, as if they were back from a long, long trip, as if they loved me, and like a murderer who has forgotten his crime but has long suspected the blackness of his heart, I turned away from all women and waited for the thing to show.
Kristen Gleason was born in California. Her writing has appeared in Fence, Fairy Tale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She is a 2016 A Public Space Emerging Writer Fellow.