After•Word Nora Jamieson’s Deranged

(Weeping Coyote Press, 2015) Available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, or through your favorite bookstore.

Deranged. The title grabs me. When I consult the dictionary I find definitions:
adj. mad, insane, disturbed crazed, demented, unhinged, certifiable, berserk, irrational; verb. cause someone to become insane, throw something into confusion, or the more archaic, intrude or interrupt. Suddenly the ghost of Mary Daly rises up from wherever she is hopefully getting a well-deserved rest. Although it is not in her Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, she would surely love this word, turning its meaning inside out, pointing to the deep background where it belongs in “the Realm of Wild Reality; the Homeland of Women’s Selves and of all other Others; the Time/Space where auras of plants, planets, stars, animals and all other animate beings connect.”1

The stories in Deranged are often heartbreaking, poignant and harsh. The uncanny events, the disconcerting connections between the human and other-than-human world may, from one perspective, appear as demented, a bit mad, even, one could say, deranged. When combined with Jamieson’s depiction of the crush of cultural expectations, the visceral experience of gender, as well as the blood-and-bone parallel between the treatment of animals and women, they work to reveal, redeem and restore the true implicate order of things.

Wildish, slightly suspect, a bit undomesticated, Anna, Sophie, and Louise, the three unforgettable women who feature in these short stories, prowl the outskirts. They are prompted by impulses often outside the ken of their neighbors, and sometimes even themselves. Each is in the business of recollecting, reckoning and remembering. They travel the beaten paths of their personal past and keep going, picking their way through the brambles of bygone times, nose to the ground, sniffing for the ragged remnants of the old ways that will bind the sorrows left behind by history. Each woman carries a story bundle packed with grief and loss; each is seeking redemption of suffering, piecing together a crazy quilt of meaning from odds and ends of memory, dreams, visions, the hard truths of the body, fragments of bones and scraps of animal hides.

Their stories work to free us from cages of imposed meaning, the baited leg traps of thought, the colonization of mind that drive us into confusion, that drive us mad. They are root medicine harvested from the bone yard of memory—astringent, ferruginous, cleansing —an antidote to poison and amnesia.

Known to each other only through happenstance or hearsay, Anna, Sophie and Louise live in places like Mountain Road and Scantic Gap, shimmering places between civilization and wilderness. They are women who when noticed at all are judged as eccentric, witchy, maybe even scary, certainly strange. They are the kind of women your mother tells you to steer clear of (unless she happens to be one of them herself). Ranging in age from middle to late (Lou/Louise’s story is her midlife recollection of her childhood), they make brief and sometimes surprising appearances in each other’s lives. As do the local four-footeds—coyote, deer, fox—whose lives and pathways cross trails with the human ones. In fact, it is the animals in these stories that are the unwitting game-changers.

“Some would say Anna is a toughened woman, strong spirited, raw boned, the lines of grief imprinted on her face. But right now she is perplexed and not a little frightened.” Thus begins Reckoning.

Anna, a crusty sixty-year-old who wears a lumberjack shirt, old jeans and mud-spattered boots, rolls her own cigarettes and keeps goats. She lives alone in a house with walls porous enough for dreams and ghosts to pass through. An old stone wall marks her land from the woods beyond. Like Anna herself, the man-made boundary between the domestic and the wild gaps open. She knows the habits of her neighbors — the crows, owls, pileated woodpeckers—she can read the tracks of deer, fox and coyote as they go about making their living. She has a few human neighbors, of whom Adam, a bachelor who “cuts holes in the sky” with his chainsaw, is one. He is a quiet, sympathetic man, willing to be of use where he can, comfortable with long silences and Anna’s strange ways.

The story opens with Anna attempting to bury the past, literally. Her mother has left her an urn containing the ashes, not of a person, but of a family album she immolated years ago in an effort to release herself from sorrow. Anna has a great appetite for the past, for stories, for memory, for the people who have gone before. Try as she might to put it to rest, the urn will not stay under the lip of a boulder where she has buried it. Each time she looks, Anna finds it unearthed. Amongst the ashes, her father’s eyes stare out from a scrap of charred photograph. His early death when Anna was a child is an open portal to grief. But this story is not only about her personal loss.

While pondering why the urn will not stay buried, she looks out the window to an opening in the stone wall, just in time to see a creature stumbling through the gateway. Anna recognizes this coyote as one she has watched for years. “She watches the slow crumble of joints, as if disassembled by pulling the connecting thread from the long and graceful legs, first front, then back, then spine, then head, and finally from the heart… Poison.”

Unhinged by the senseless brutality of this animal’s death, the broken treaty between animal and human, Anna puts a funeral notice in the newspaper. “Eastern Grey Coyote died on February 10th from an acute illness after suffering excruciating convulsions and suffocation. Cause of death: poison.” Following the template for a human obituary, she goes on to recall the coyote’s “exemplary mothering,” her “haunting songs and keen survival skills… How, “having been displaced numerous times from her home habitat, she developed the capacity to make do without assistance… She displayed strength of character, curiosity and a playful humor even in the face of intense hatred. She will be dearly missed by those she leaves behind, her family pack and Anna Holmes of Mountain Road who is holding calling hours on February 12th from 9p.m. to midnight.”

The funeral draws a bunch of curious neighbors and a mysterious old truth-telling woman. The story drops into deeper territory where everything becomes simultaneously complex and simplified; the age-old arguments between livestock keepers and coyote defenders are put to rest for the moment by a particularly coyote way of reckoning, and with their tricksterish help, Anna finds the redemption she has been seeking.

Sophie Carson declares herself to be “The Looking Back Woman of Scantic Gap.” She is an old woman, close to dying, who is writing her story for an unnamed “you.” Scantic Gap, a place in the river where the water drops sixty feet, is “the place where the old is done and new is coming.” Sophie ponders a particular stretch of this river, “where the water swirls and spirals around, where it rests and considers this change in direction. I like to think it is gathering up memory in that vortex of time, before plunging on.” It’s an apt description of Sophie herself, as she pokes at the past with her stick, looking for memories of her ancestors.

“I am descended from a hard working, hard drinking people. And hard hearted too, suspicious and battle weary.” Her people are Ulster Scots forced by the English land clearances to Ireland, and from Ireland to America by the potato blight. But that is only one stream in her blood. There is another: the “indigenous peoples who wore skins…for whom the land and the red deer were sacred.” Sophie contemplates her mixed blood ancestry: “Two warring bloods living side by side, keeping this life running now for some eighty years. I lost many, not so much to history as to hope. The kind of hope that carries us across seas, over borders, that issues from a hunger so desperate it drives murder. Of a people, of a land. Hope can be terminal. It blinds grief, the portal to the soul of a person.”

Sophie declares herself to be deranged, like the polar bear she saw in the zoo as a child, hopelessly pacing its small enclosure. “What is wrong with that bear?” she had asked, and her mother replied with a memorable word: “Deranged.” Like the bear, Sophie paces “the cages of history’s making.” From a lifetime of living, Sophie has gleaned her blood stories: her grandmother, Rayna, a mixed blood Abenaki-Scot who quietly taught her native ways; her grandfather, Joe, an Ulster Scot who emigrated to the States looking for work as a weaver; her parents, Angus and Fiona; her husband, Samuel, fresh off the boat from County Armagh and with whom she had two stillborn children, their marriage faltering under the weight of childless sorrow.

Sophie tells her unknown reader, who has now become us, what compels her to write everything down. “Like the bear, I am trying to walk home and it is hopeless. I do not recommend it, but I do encourage it. I wake everyday in homesickness and while I don’t remember the way, I keep the homesickness alive because it is the only entry I have that might lead me into the way it should be. I may not get there, but I keep it open for you, or for someone who comes behind you.”

For the past thirty years Sophie has lived alone in the house her father and mother built at Scantic Gap. She has neighbors, including Anna Holmes on Mountain Road. When she reads Anna’s newspaper announcement of the funeral for the Eastern Gray Coyote, Sophie attends the ceremony. Afterwards, at her home in Scantic Gap, she is given a dream vision that brings her story full circle.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is what some would call a coming-of-age story, but in Jamieson’s hands, it is a coming-to-sanity tale that sutures a whole skin from things that have been split down the middle, the ripped and torn fragments of childhood, a necessary triage that allows the wise woman teachings to live and breathe.

“My name is Louise Estey Sewell,” announces the narrator in the first paragraph. She has returned in late middle age to her childhood home where her father, following three generations of workers in the fur and hide trade, had a taxidermy shop.

“You might wonder how I could, for a time, turn away from what I came to know in these rememberings… I left home at seventeen, moved to the small city nearby and turned my back on what I knew for many years. I became sick—heart sick, home sick, bone sick, city sick, is this all there is sick. Desperate, I took to walking, like I had as a girl.”

The rest of the story is a childhood memoir. From earliest memory, Lou had been surrounded by fur. “Pelts of deer, bear, raccoon and wolf had lined my bed… They were a beautiful and warm comfort to me, my lap and my solace… furs and how they came to be were always an unquestioned fact of my young life.” As the only living child of her parents, Lou, as she was called as a girl, apprenticed to her father at an early age; she worked with him in the back room of his shop and assumed that she would carry on her father’s tradition. But the skinned animals also gave her pause. As she observed, “the molded meat and muscle, the bluish tissue that wrapped them, the open mouth, the lolling tongue,” she understood that, “this was dead… and the recognition of my own animal self sent a shiver of wonder and unease through me.”

While Lou and her father worked in the back of the shop, the local men gathered in the front around the woodstove, “the air blue with their smoke, their language.” Lou listened and watched and became “as mute as the death that came through our door… Sensation and smell, the warmth of the stove, the men’s voices, the pelts, the sitting and stitching, this was my life as a child.” Bonded in their work and their silence, Lou’s father treated her as the son that she should have been. But that’s just one half of it.

Next door to John Sewell’s Taxidermy was her mother’s store—Salome’s Lingerie and Corset Shop. The wives of the men who sat around her father’s woodstove voiced their marital laments amidst the delicate hand-sewn undergarments of silk and lace. Skilled with a needle, Lou worked both fur pelts and fine cloth, moving between her parents’ domains, absorbing the charged tension that arced between the men and women, a sizzle of sexual heat, longing and fury.

When Lou’s father calls her by her formal name, Louise, on her tenth birthday, and tells her not to be a pussy when she hesitates to skin a freshly killed rabbit, she crosses over into an unwanted yet unavoidable womanhood. She is pulled out of childhood innocence by what she see and senses around her: a fox who mourns for a relative whose remains are tossed in her father’s outdoor bone cage, a man who leaves bruises on his wife and frequents the taxidermy, the whole desperate and displaced violence and love that runs between humans and animals. Louise begins to take revenge. She takes up cursing and blessing and springs traps in the woods. When one of the hunters comes upon her in the woods and takes out his deadly mix of longing and frustration on her body, she seeks the old woman, Sophie Carson, who offers her refuge, wisdom and healing in the old manner, with feathers and smoke and teachings from the elders.

These loosely interconnected stories have the internal complexity of Louise Erdrich, the sharp tang of Linda Hogan, and the quirkiness of Leslie Marmon Silko, but Jamieson’s voice is unique; her perspective is shifty-eyed, her language an irreverent mix of raw emotion, probing intellect, soulful reflection and deep wisdom. In this work, Jamieson issues her readers a passport into the invisible and unspoken realms of forgotten stories: the human ones and also those of other-than-humans. Along with the passport, the only thing required at the border crossing is an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to be moved. The signpost warns, “Here is where history ends and the healing of deep memory begins.”

About the Author

Patricia Reis is the author of numerous articles and essays, (see “Over the Edge” in DarkMatter#1) and has published four books, including Daughters of Saturn: From Father’s Daughter to Creative Woman, The Dreaming Way: Dreams and Art for Remembering and Recovery, and Women’s Voices (co-edited with Nancy Cater, 2014) which includes an in-depth interview with Terry Tempest Williams. Her as-yet-untitled memoir is forthcoming in fall, 2016. She divides her time between Portland, Maine and Nova Scotia.

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