I've lived a lucky life. Only two phone calls have ever caused my vision to constrict. One was news that my husband had died. I was home, past deadline, wrangling with my novel. He'd taken the kids skiing to give me some peace. He hit a tree, and our lives changed.
The second tunnel-vision call came two years later. It was from the NEA. It must say something about me, that I believed the call from the ski hill utterly, but doubted news of an award. You must have the wrong person, I said. Really.
Dave and I had always supported our passions (for travel, horses, writing) with practical work. We were custom home builders. When he died, I suddenly was not. I was just an unemployed single mom whose manuscript would have to save the farm. On top of the other new demands, now I needed to write like someone thrown overboard needs to swim. And that's how I wrote: churning, flailing, frightened. In hope of rescue, I applied for grants, begged for advances. The answer was always no. The harder I fought, the more I hated writing. And writing was the one thing I loved most to do.
Finally, I had to let go. Not of writing but of having to write. Art can't be pushed, hurried, dictated to. It's about love, it's about play, about wandering and exploring and arriving at the impractical understanding-that-there-can-be-no-understanding. I knew this once, but not well enough. I forgot it. I remembered.
I found work, stopped grasping at slim hopes, or worrying about deadlines. And it says something about the sentience of the universe, or its mystery, that I found some happiness and grace, and then the last grant I'd applied for came through.
Bless the NEA for this chance to put art first. Bless all of you on the panel, for your faith and encouragement. From my knees I say I understand this gift, and am ready for it.
Excerpt from Heart of the Monster
Now Truman was used to school, high rows of metal beds shining in blue darkness, polished shoes to wait on every trunk, no place even for some dust to hide.
School had a small plum tree out behind some dirt where they can sit. Wilson’s mother also died, but Wilson had a picture of them all together. One time he showed. Wilson’s father wore a suit. His mother’s braids fell down you didn’t know how far. So Truman thought about that time he went to have a picture. He with his sister and his mother and his father they all dressed and went for haircuts. Then they bought a plate of oysters. His father liked them, so Truman ate some too. They ate and went to get a picture. His mother sat with Nancy in a red chair, and he had stood beside his father but those oysters rose right up from him onto a flowered carpet. That picture man had shouted Dirty Indians for a long time after.
Sitting in their rows of desks, he thought about his father’s cases, those velvet shapes inside, how every metal thing just had a place to fit, knobs and screws and yellowed bubbles inside glass. His father’s hair and beard were like this three-boats-man Mr. Evans showed, standing with his compass.
“Who discovered America?”
Now every afternoon that teacher asked and they were practicing.
“Christopher Columbus!” Their voices shouting, glad at last to fit it.
Wednesday after brush-teeth it was him and Wilson going out for First Industrial, their turn at chicken feeding. Guey gave them kitchen scrap. They walked it up to Mr. Fleming. He unlocked his corn house and they scooped it. So they were walking with their heavy pails along, just hurrying not to miss their breakfast. They came around through weeds and morning shadow and Truman didn’t see until she moved, his grandmother. Some kind of trick she’d done, to be there.
Wilson looked at him.
Truman didn’t move. He didn’t want to drop that pail and be in trouble. He didn’t want to run.
We’re going to go, she said.
Tied was what a person got who ran. There was one big tree that everyone can see. Other kids made bets to see how long that tied-up person took to pee himself. He didn’t want to be put to that tree.
She moved off. He didn’t follow. Police are going to come, he thought, but no one talked like that to elders. So he was looking at those chickens walking up and down behind their fence and clucking. He was thinking how much time to breakfast.
Then Wilson set his pail down quick and started running. They were going to run for Mr. Fleming’s but in just two steps Truman felt his arm get grabbed. He leaned against her pulling and then his pail knocked over and he knew what everyone was going to think. Now he was different. It wasn’t time to go. Wilson was just out of sight and yelling, and she was getting on, she was pulling him onto her horse behind. He didn’t even have his things. His things he wanted. Qapap ewene’pte she said.
He held. They were pitching down and splashing through where there was no bridge and climbing. His stomach squeezed.
They pushed under branches, through all that leafy green, this horse was crashing. His head was down, eyes closed. Then sunlight.
They rode and he had to hold on around her old green wool blanket. Wrap-needles kept it shut. That same skirt she always wore. Green cloth kerchief and her thin gray braids coming down like muskrat tails. She kept turning to see behind them and he was thinking of that one old man who came to get his granddaughter. She was sick and he took her and then police put him in jail. Then he died and his granddaughter died. Truman never knew her but they all knew this story, it was true.
All day he kept watching behind but only saw different colored grasses, low trees, a little creek they followed. Pale sky, metal colored clouds. She said everyone was going to leave Lapwai, but no one seemed to be. They passed horses watching from a rocky hill, but no one rode them. They passed a bunch of cattle. But no police or anyone came after.
“Where are we going?”
She answered but it didn’t mean anything. He just said it to be talking.
He said, “What about Mr. Fleming?”
They rode and he was almost sleeping when dogs barked. He saw fires lit. Half moon in blue evening. They took him down. Everyone came talking, and their dog Cache came up and that was good. He saw Nancy with Sophie. No one his age was here, just girls and babies. Older Brother didn’t look at him. He ate remembering this food, it was black and sweet and bitter. Everyone was talking to each other. He counted. Twenty three.
He had nine friends at school. Levi, Eli, Paul, Oscar, Amos, Albert, Sam and Wilson were maybe putting on their nightshirts now. He thought about that high board ceiling, lamps going out, long stripes of moonlight through their windows. How they whispered.
His bed was here, Kautsa showed. This smell of dirty wool and hair he remembered. She went away.
When his mother used to put him here, her hands brushed past his ears and made that good soft hollow sound, smooth and bending like a breath, her hand like love brushing in.
He saw hanging bags and baskets, drying meat, pile of wood, his sisters in their bed, everything as he remembered. Except that where his mother slept was just an empty place. Just nothing.
Karen Fisher is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, A Sudden Country (Random House, 2005). It won numerous awards, including the Washington State Book Award and the Mountains and Plains Bookseller's Award, and was named a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She lives on Lopez Island, Washington, with three children and a herd of horses. She is at work on a second novel, a screenplay, and a memoir.
Photo by David Fisher