Disjointed fragments knit themselves together in your dreams. You’re alone in the compartment of a speeding train, windows black with night. You’re standing at the rail on the deck of a ship inhaling the salt air, you can hear the plash of water against the bow. You trudge along a moonlit beach strewn with shells and tangled ropes of seaweed, your feet sinking into the sand. You’re expected somewhere but you can’t remember where. You’re walking through the Waste Land, a hallucinatory, three-dimensional video installation of Eliot’s poem. On one screen, the dead streaming over London Bridge as the clock strikes nine. On another, Madame Sosostris laying out Tarot cards, her rings sparkling in the lamplight. A drowned Phoenician sailor who’s undergone a sea change. A couple playing chess. A bored typist engaging in a sordid tryst. A deserted chapel. You try to describe the process to your husband the next evening, but the fragments unravel, the literary allusions a code you can’t decipher.
You and your husband read by lamplight in front of a crackling fireplace. You’re not like the alienated couple in “The Waste Land,” you’re glad he’s there with you, sitting on the worn tan couch, throw pillows scattered on the floor, a book in his lap. How many years have you spent reading together? You flinch, startled, and he looks up. “Did you hear something?” he asks, “You look like you just heard something.” And you say, “Nothing.” “Is there someone at the door?” he asks, and you say, “No one,” but you know your nerves are bad tonight, and maybe someone or something’s at the door.
“On Margate Sands / I can connect nothing with nothing,” Eliot wrote, recuperating by the sea from his breakdown, accumulating the heap of glittering fragments that he handed over to Pound. It’s been years since you immersed yourself in the poem for your dissertation in graduate school, sifting for months through discarded fragments and reshuffled versions of the ones that remained, poring over a facsimile of the manuscript, the margins dotted with exclamation points from his wife. “My nerves are bad tonight,” the wife says in the poem. “Yes, bad.” You sat in the Rare Book Room with a pencil and a notebook and a stack of index cards, no pens allowed, as the late afternoon sun slanted on the polished wooden table and dust motes floated in the air. You held a faded picture postcard Eliot had sent from Margate in your hands, turning it over and over as if it held some secret. The one-line message was unremarkable, you can’t remember who the recipient was. The room was hushed and empty.
Like Eliot, you connect nothing with nothing, Eliot’s nervous wife later locked up in a mental asylum with Poe’s nervous narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” already confined somewhere: “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Poe himself probably bipolar and a self-medicating alcoholic, not exactly mad. You are mad, but not exactly, your essays disjointed, your narration unreliable—connections oblique, destination unclear as you wander through “half-deserted streets” that “lead you to an overwhelming question … / Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’”
In her last years your mother heard imaginary doorbells in the middle of the night and like it or not you are her daughter and what if she returns some night in the early hours before dawn to push the doorbell or rap softly on your front door? “What’s that?” you’ll say sharply, turning in bed to wake your husband out of a sound sleep. “Nothing,” he’ll say. “Maybe a night bird or a branch on the window.” Which isn’t nothing and isn’t the world filled with ghosts, animating the birds who screech in your yard and the very trees surrounding your house, tapping to be admitted?
And if the dead go through some sea change, do they shed their animosities, or are their ghosts waiting outside the door, around the corner, shivering on the stairs, waiting to trip you and laugh?
Cats streak through your yard, climb the fences, crouch in the shrubbery, one large and white, one midnight black. They yowl and hiss outside your bedroom window every night, plant themselves in the garden by day, defend their territory, backs arched, bristling. Your tabby cat is buried in your yard by the back fence and once you dreamt that a woman dressed in black holding a parasol glided through the clump of trees surrounding her grave. Your son, just returned from three years in Borneo, said that Malaysians would call her specter a spirit visitation.
When you wrote your first essay about your mother after she died, a New Agey friend told you she would return in your dreams to bless you, and she, the friend, could be your guide through this transition, and really your friendship was never the same after that because she knew nothing about how deep it went, your mother’s anger and grudges and malevolence. You were brought up Irish-American Catholic and superstitious, you fear the dark, and you know you are right. Your mother will push you down the cellar stairs if she can, she’s not going to bless you.
And have you arrived where you are going? Was the looming shadow of your mother your destination, or is she merely one in a host of phantoms you’ll encounter on a journey through the wasteland that will end all too soon? You can’t remember where you were headed in your dream, or maybe you never knew. Tonight you make the sign of the cross at the final stroke of nine, even though you don’t believe in that any more. It will be time to go to bed soon. Your husband is closeted in his study, writing. You’re closeted in your study, trying to write. Twilight has fallen, then darkness, without your noticing and turning on a light. The room is lit by the dim glow of the computer screen, barely illuminating the large bulletin board on the wall above your desk, which overflows with images—Poe, Beckett, la Virgen de Guadalupe, Chagall and his wife aloft in the sky, O’Keefe’s dark bird hovering above the clouds, ancient trees, tarot cards—a changing collage of tacked up postcards, pictures torn from magazines, old photos, scribbled quotations. Shadows congregate in the corners of your room. A small creature scratches inside the wall. Outside the wind wails like a banshee.
Jacqueline Doyle is the author of the chapbook The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). She has recent creative nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, and Passages North, and recent flash in Wigleaf, Hotel Amerika, Threadcount, and The Collagist. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.