Chapter excerpt from Rick Moody's latest novel, The Diviners. Moody talks to Huffpo about the book here.
Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, in insubstantial light, entrails in flames. Rosa Elisabetta of the hammertoe, Rosa Elisabetta of the corns. Rosa Elisabetta of the afflictions. She has hinted about the nature of her sufferings to certain persons up the block, certain persons on Eleventh Street, Brooklyn. Emilia, whose son sells the raviolis, for example. She has whispered to Emilia about the colitis. She has indicated problems relating to her gallbladder. Stones. Also headaches. These headaches begin with visitations, with rainbows, celestial light, an inability to remember numbers. Rosa Elisabetta might smell the overpowering perfume of cocktail onions, after which there is Technicolor. Two or three days sick in bed, lower than a dog is low. If she's enumerating the complaints for Emilia, there is the colitis, there are the corns, there is the pancreas, there are the headaches. At least four things. Gas, though it's not proper to talk about it. On nights when the garlic has not been properly saut?ed according to the cuisine of her ancestral homeland,Tuscany, then there is also the gas. Perhaps it is correct to include this in the list of complaints, assembled at 6:13AM, as she burrows down further into bedcovers, into the folds of her four-poster. She doesn't know how much longer she can resist the cramps, the pressurized evacuation of her last meal and everything else eaten in the past twenty-four hours, everything, at least, that has not already been evacuated. Best to be pleasant about it; this is what Emilia said when Rosa Elisabetta Meandro was telling her about the scabs. There are these scabs that don't heal; when she gets a cut, saws into herself accidentally in the kitchen, dicing vegetables, there is the mineralization of the cut. The cut doesn't heal, not as it should. What's that all about? She was also going to tell Emilia about the halitosis, that day, which she can smell by cupping her hands and attempting to exhale and inhale quickly, while lying in the four-poster. It is no longer the smell of the garlic saut?ed, nor is it the smell of the cocktail onions, nor is it the smell of port wine, nor is it stewed peppers. It's some new smell, and this is what Rosa was trying to tell Emilia the other day, no doubt about it. The look in the eyes of Emilia was a look of pity, which is a look that makes Rosa Elisabetta Meandro irritable, though she tries to be pleasant, and this righteous anger, even in the dawn light ebbing into the garden apartment through the windows facing the street, is a refreshing sentiment, a motivator, as she breathes out cupping her hands.
Consider the formidable Rosa Elisabetta of the past. Consider the archaeology of her phases. Kingmaker in the civic politics of the Fourth Ward, parader with infant ghouls and vampires on Halloween, soup kitchen volunteer; Rosa Elisabetta, institution. Dignified mother of the block, guardian of the parking spaces of longtime residents of the neighborhood, protector of the community, of local parishes, registrar of voters. Once she was all these things. A lover of families. As she enumerates them, however, Rosa Elisabetta can feel the sweat pooling in the folds of her abdomen; she can feel cramps beckoning from south of her equator.What was it that Emilia surely wanted to say about her bad breath? Maybe nothing. Her father had bad breath. Foul breath. It was his guts. She was there with the priest, such a nice priest, and the breath of her father smelled like a gizzard. She won't talk to Emilia anymore. How can anyone think such a thing? The cupping-hands experiment does not bear out results. Nothing at all like the smell of death.
She held the little children in the day care center while their mothers worked in Manhattan. She sang songs to these children, songs by important American singers from the age of big bands. Not one of these little children said to her: Your breath smells like something died in your mouth. She liked to present the boys with chocolates; she liked to warn them about the dangers of amorous contact. She told the little boys and girls: Avoid becoming in- flamed. Never be alone in a room with a man who is too thin. Never walk near an idling automobile if it has tinted windows. Next she would speak of the constellations, how the constellations were catalogued during the Roman Empire. She knows about the Roman Empire from her father and his father, and she knows about it from the priests in the schoolyard of Dyker Heights, where she lived as a girl. She also once watched a miniseries on the subject of the Roman Empire. The emperors poisoned one another.The emperors knew a lot about poisons. She lifted and carried children, kissed them on their dirty necks. It is not right that Emilia from the ravioli store should even consider saying anything about the colitis, the gas, the headaches, the corns, the scabs, the breath, or the hair that is falling out. Or the blindness, or the incipient deafness, or the fact that Rosa is too skinny. Her dresses hang off her, like sheets draped over furniture in shuttered houses.
The cat is disturbed by a migrating foot from his spot in a spiral of bedclothes at the end of the bed. The cat resembles the black-and-whites of civic policing, but she does not like the name her daughter has given him and will not utter it.The animal hops gamely to the floor, waits. Will Rosa feed him? Now Rosa Elisabetta smooths her threadbare nightgown over her legs, pulls an old pink sweater from a squeaky dresser drawer just opposing, and wraps it around herself.Winches herself up on swollen knees and hips. This is her submission to the order of aging and infirmity. She knows what is to come now, how long it will take. She passes across the hardwood floor with its inlays of cherry and mahogany, into the sitting room, careful to avoid stacks of reading material beside the chair, some large stacks, in front of the French doors leading out to the garden. She flips on the television on the way past, 6:21AM. A twenty-four-inch monitor that she bought used from a newspaper advertisement. The static of the picture assembling. She doesn't have time to look because all at once she is doubled over, indelicately emitting pollutants, she's awake and will be awake, clutching at her insides. She can hear the device, the old television set, from the bathroom. The volume is calibrated to allow this pleasure. Its music is generous from the agony of the bathroom. She bolts the door, leaving the cat on the other side. She begins to weep as the tremors begin. She weeps for the indignity. She hopes she will not bleed. She worries that it will not stop. She could live with it for a while, the colitis, if only she didn't bleed. She reaches for a magazine on the tank.The wallpaper in the bathroom, floral print, is peeling, and there is paint flaking from the ceiling. She tries to pretend that the concerns of the magazine are her concerns. Allegations about the outgoing president and his wife. His wife's lesbian secret. A powerful weight-loss program has enabled certain celebrities to shed up to seventy pounds. One chubby actress had her stomach stapled, live on the Internet.Will Rosa Elisabetta faint? Perspiration courses down her brow. She has fainted in the past. An awful embarrassment, the fainting, because then her daughter or the Polish woman who comes to clean will find her on the floor. Another actress, this one too thin, needs to put some weight back on, drinks milk shakes that weight lifters drink. Just the ticket. She thinks she can hear them talking about it on the television. Weight loss. Rosa throws the magazine into the claw-footed bathtub. Her face is slick.The cat is mewling outside the door, beckoning. There is a moment of pain, but then she attends instead to the soothing television voices. In the morning she likes to have on the perky one, the perky one, because the perky one keeps at bay the fear of death, but it doesn't sound as though she remembered to turn on the perky one, it sounds as though she got the one with the speech impediment. She likes the one with the speech impediment because he might explain things properly. But she prefers the perky one. She is comforted by all overheard voices, especially on mornings like this. And these voices are mixed with discussions from the past, in her head, enmity between her grandfather and her father, for example; she has been known to have a conversation with her estranged husband while shitting her brains out.
She will need someone from the neighborhood to keep an eye on her parking space. She has no car, but still. People are moving in, young people, they don't even know.Your car is secure for a total of six days through the kindness of neighbors. The young people don't understand until they have lived here as long as she has lived here, forty-six years. If she catches one of these young people trying to take her parking space, no matter about the colitis, she will give him or her a talking-to. From time to time, she has put on her robe and pulled open the door and called up the steps in the darkness. "Take your car back to Omaha! Don't you come around here again!" Imagine taking people's spaces when these people have lived here since before your parents were born. They move into the neighborhood, these young people, and the girl doesn't even have a ring on her finger. Honestly. That first September her daughter was in college, she put an advertisement in the paper, apartment to let, like in the old days, when the floozy from the bar performed an incantation on Rosa's husband. Just like then, renting the room. Except this couple calls to see the apartment. No wedding rings. They are different colors; one is a black man and one is an Italian girl. She shows them around, the original balustrade, cast iron, painted black, finials. She makes remarks about southerly light; she makes remarks about original moldings and plastering; she speaks of the Romanesque and Italianate uses of brownstone, things she has been told to say by a Realtor on Seventh Avenue whose services Rosa did not retain. She doesn't say anything to this couple that she wouldn't say to anyone at all, treats them as she would treat anyone, makes pleasantries, even when the black man is offering his know-it-all comments about wiring in the building, asking if the wiring has been rewired since the building went up. When exactly. She says, "You ought to see the garden, honey," ushers the girl back onto the patio, through her own apartment. She has the tomato vines, some basil and parsley, painted daisies, cone- flower.Warm, everything flowers later into the season. Rosa takes the girl by the shoulder, in the dappled sunlight of the patio, where she used to hang the laundry, and she says to her, "I figure out who your mama is, I'll call her, and I'll tell her you were here with that man, and I will help her give you a talking-to. So now you get your black boyfriend and you get out of here same way you came in; don't let me see you on this street again, do you hear me? And you better hope none of the boys on this block saw you with that boyfriend, not if you want to make it to the subway in one piece."
There are couples like this on the block now, all sorts of couples, and the boys on the block, who used to have a sense of honor, they don't do a thing about it. Maybe the neighbors all treat these couples to a look of chastisement on the way past, but that's the end of it. A disgrace. Rosa Elisabetta herself is no longer the kind of person who lives on this block. Rosa is a specter, a revenant of a Brooklyn past, someone buried under layers of sediment, which is why she has the smell of death on her.
The pancreas, the problem with the pancreas, and the corns, and other complaints. She thinks, I will no longer drink the vin ordinaire, I will only drink the white wine and the Communion wine.Voices in the next room, gathering to speak of such terminologies as grave uncertainty, political instability, intervention of the courts, none of it particularly clear to Rosa. She pays the most attention to the school board and the city council, the social clubs, and she only pays attention to these because in the old days she paid attention to them when her father and her father's friends had an interest in politics.They knew how to look after what was theirs. She would give out leaflets over by the subway. Now she's not even sure who is running for the school board, if there is even a school board candidate.
Like trying to evacuate pieces of glass, like glass or maybe pieces of your brain coming out of your posterior, bits of your insides, bits of your organs, like your pancreas, for example, or the gallbladder. Black bile, green bile, stones. All the humors. Such a stink. She moans, while the voices debate about concession and recount, and so Rosa resolves not to give in herself and reaches into the cabinet underneath the sink, if she can just reach from where she is, where she keeps a special something. At the exertion, another molten river floods from her. Usually after an hour or so she feels better.When it is clearing itself up, she doesn't really need the bottle, the quart bottle purchased from the criminals at the bodega. Doesn't like to patronize them, because they do not ask after her family. She's sure that they are selling illegal drugs to schoolchildren, but nonetheless, there's the fact of convenience. The mildew smell is nauseating, too. When the Polish lady comes, she will have to tell her about the smell. Rosa Elisabetta doesn't know if she'll be able to keep down the malt liquor. Sometimes she spits it up. Sometimes she has to spit up some of the malt liquor in order to calm her stomach. Into the sink, sometimes into the tub. It's like in the miniseries about the Roman emperors. One fellow, he had the sour stomach, and then his grandmother fed him. Rosa unscrews the cap on the malt liquor, a feverish chill overtaking her; she can hear the chatter from the next room, beautiful and serene now that she's unscrewing the cap of the malt liquor. The voices sound like birds. The flocks of Prospect Park in spring, like that rooster that was crowing in the park last summer, someone left a rooster in the park, and it was doing its job in the mornings. She decides to risk the malt liquor. Everything is nauseating on a morning like this, the old tile floor in the bathroom of the brownstone, the mildew, the stink, the interracial couples of the neighborhood, the diaspora of her contemporaries to Long Island and to Westchester, to the state of Florida. She drinks deep, gags, drinks more, gags. Drinks more. Rosa Elisabetta, the last person in this neighborhood to have officiated in stickball and to have carried lasagna next door when people moved in, the last person to have drunk red wine out of jugs at the block party, where the priest came by and made jokes about baseball.They all drank wine, her family drank wine, even as a girl she drank wine, her friends had wine on Sundays at church, and no one worried about whether the priest was molesting anyone.
Rosa Elisabetta won't allow herself to be pushed out of her own neighborhood, where she raised up a daughter by herself and grew old. The neighborhood where she learned the one thing she learned, that a daughter was what God had promised. The perfection of daughters, daughters running in the park, daughters playing on the swings, daughters at the zoo, daughters smelling hyacinth in the botanical garden, smelling lilies. She made a dress for her daughter out of gingham, put up her daughter's hair in pigtails, took her over to the neighbors to ask if her daughter was not the prettiest girl on the block. She raised a daughter and worked in the principal's office of the elementary school, and no one can take her parking space away from her.
Replenishment of fluids.Vital to her condition. She knows what a flat cola will do for an elementary school child in the throes of a stomach complaint. She knows how to stop a nosebleed and how to apply a tourniquet. She will stay here until she has replenished. The malt liquor is half empty, and she is feeling as though she might be up and around before noontime after all. She is starting to feel like a matriarch, like a God-fearing Catholic. So she reaches back and toggles the lever, to flush away the bits of her that she has ripped loose, and the toilet gurgles darkly after clearing only a portion of the evidence. "Oh, don't tell me. Don't you dare tell me."Yet while this anxiety about plumbing - like anxiety about all home maintenance issues, and anxiety about medical issues, and anxiety about automotive issues, and anxiety about political issues - weighs heavily on Rosa Elisabetta, a fresh bout of muscular contractions overtakes her, and she can do nothing until its temblors have coursed through her. Then, coated with sweat and smelling like malt liquor, she reaches over, runs the tap, as if the sound of the tap will help, maybe the sound of the tap, instead of voices talking about the state of Florida, and she gets a handful of water, spills it across her face. It splatters the neckline of her nightgown and her sweater. She hates the color of her towels. She avails herself further of the malt liquor. She will finish the bottle.
Rosa is going to have to get herself well enough to search out the plunger in the kitchen, and then she is going to have to plunge the john, because she doesn't want to make it anyone's business, though she can barely make it up the block to the bodega on a good day. She only does it to purchase supplies when her daughter is at work, so no one will see. Otherwise, she has everything delivered. She won't have the plumber in here because of the blood, because she knows there's blood. She won't have it. She heaves, nothing comes up, and then the last of the malt liquor goes down.The first sip tastes like ambrosia, the last like formaldehyde.
She drops the empty into the claw-footed bathtub. It rolls back and forth without shattering. The trash can that she purchased at the discount store on Atlantic is over by the door. She doesn't like going there, Atlantic Center. It's full of the wrong kind of people. She went that one time because there were bargains. She reaches for a second bottle under the sink, just to be sure of the existence of the second bottle, and she gets a finger around the top of it, but then the quart bottle topples and rolls back into the sink cabinet, upending a toilet brush and a can of cleanser. She takes the name of her Heavenly Father in vain. She must have lost five pounds now, maybe more, and the room stinks, and the toilet is all clogged, and all she asks for is a little bit of relief.
The voices clamoring about Palm Beach County are like the souls clamoring to get into purgatory, or like the bees making a nest in their honeycomb. In the countryside. In an Italian village. In Siena. Il mio caro paese. She can see it now, her father and her father's father.Amateur magicians. In the old country. She knows all the stories. She can see the cypresses, farmers bent along rows of grapevines. Olive groves. She pushes up the lid of the toilet tank and plunges her hand into the tank, its rusty H2O, and the lid, which is so heavy, slips sideways, hits the lip of the clawfooted bathtub, crashes to the floor, where it actually breaks clean in two. Rosa Elisabetta castigates the toilet lid with a string of ornamental curses. Outside the door, the cat gets traction and skitters off to the farthest closet he can find. Upstairs, too, from the racket she's causing she can hear that her daughter has waked, the planks of the hardwood giving with her daughter's ungraceful footfalls.Where is that pint bottle? She knows she put the pint bottle in the toilet tank, because her daughter was haranguing her. Her daughter was in the closet, throwing things out, mementos, items that Rosa needed, and that was when someone must have taken away those other items in the closet and perhaps also the one in the toilet tank. Someone has thrown them out. Her daughter is always straightening. She comes and she straightens up. And her daughter hired the Polish woman who also comes, and they straighten up together, but Rosa Elisabetta knew what that was all about, she knew what was getting straightened up.
Voices call out about the weather. Chance of showers. Drizzle approaching.
The worst of all possible things, which is that she hears her daughter's front door closing, hears steps in the stairwell. The lumbering tread. She's in her pajamas and coming downstairs to look in on Rosa. How could the great-granddaughter of magicians be such a dinosaur! Her grandfather, her great-grandfather, they were revered men of the village. They turned the lands of the poor and the afflicted to good. Gypsies followed them wherever they went.
The Viscusis came to the barren parts of the land with special tools, divining rods. These tools had been blessed by a sympathetic priest. The Viscusis said some powerful magical phrases, and then when they dug in that spot, they found water. Clean water, pure water. All the wells in their town, those wells had been selected and dug by Viscusis, so the Viscusis stood for water, for things growing, for cultivation, for husbandry. The wine that you drank from that town, the town where she was from, where her father and her grandfather were from, that wine came from grapes that were nourished by the wells dug by Viscusis.
Rosa's mistake was marrying Claudio Meandro, who was only good for one thing, and that was drinking up the product.Well, he was good for other things, too, for whoring and never bringing home a wage and abandoning his wife and daughter. She can hear her daughter wheezing, even with the television on. The rudeness of her daughter's breathing, which is the husky breathing of a chubby woman, the breathing of someone who is undersea diving. And that was just her coming downstairs.
"Did you feed the cat?" her daughter yells from the stairwell. "Don't come in here!" Rosa calls from the bathroom.
"Why do you have to chain the door?" Her chubby hand now on the other side of the doorknob. "Why is this chained?"
"I'm in the bathroom!" Rosa calls, and the exertion prompts a fresh stream of her insides. "Don't come in." "Are you okay?"
"If I needed you in here with me I'd call you." "I heard a crash." "You did not."
The neighbors in the next building will be able to hear the shouting through the cement, through the brownstone, through the Sheetrock, through the plastering. She gets up off the john now and crouches; her legs and her bottom are covered with the mess of her condition, she's a mess, and she tries to flush it away, again; she wants all of this gone, this indignity of the present, feminine-itch commercials, television programs about people on some island eating rats to stay alive so that their pictures might appear in magazines devoted to the subject of weight loss. She will brain that daughter if she comes in here. How did she give birth to a fat woman?
Her grandfather was summoned by the mayor of the village, a man with guns and power. The mayor said, I'm not getting a crop to grow here on my lands while you have many crops growing on the lands you oversee.You are harvesting all the crops, and I can't bring my grapes to market, and what I want is for you to bring your magical spells to my land here. I want you to make my lands fertile. Or else I'm going to run you out of town, and that will be the end of your vineyard. And your kids and your kids' kids, they'll be forgotten here, they will be outlaws, and the name of Viscusi will be forgotten here for all the rest of time. This was after the war, understand, and there was a lot of ill humor around. And there was also the matter of the well at Pienza, which owed its fame to Pius II.The mayor was outraged, completamente oltraggiato, that none could design a better well than the one at Pienza.
"I can't stay here and be after you all morning, Mom." "Give someone some peace and quiet if they need it."
Rosa tries to flush away the evidence one more time. A serious tactical error. Now the worst possible thing happens, which is that the merda begins to come up, the water swirls ominously, and soon what will not go down through the drains, out to the sewage treatment plant, it comes up, backs up, and she can hear herself crying out in dismay, but she hears it almost as if it is happening to someone else. She doesn't know what's in her, what worm or parasite causes her to suppurate like this, part of her pancreas, part of her bowel; there's that moment of hesitation, that meniscoid pause in the process of boiling up, before it swells over the lip of the toilet -
"Are you listening about the election?"
- and begins to flood the floor. The insides of her twisting and burning. And that's when the headache starts, she can feel it beginning to start, the headache is upon her now, too, the Technicolor. She is beginning to have the vision, the phantasms that precede the next onslaught of pain, and the vision is of her grandfather and her grandfather's father, and they are desperate men, because they cannot find the water in the fields belonging to the mayor. They cannot find the water. After dusk, after church, they are wearing the clothes they wore to church, and there is the light of the old country, the light that inspired those old masters, the perfect light of the Tuscan country, and they go out into the fields, past a matrimonial procession winding up the streets toward the town square, and the wedding is making its tortuous way toward the well in town, a beautiful old well where the men and their wives will pour out long drafts of water, and they will drink wine and they will drink water, and they will revel and dance. Her father's father and grandfather are not in the wedding party, they are working, and they have the polished sticks of their profession, diviner's wood, this wood that for generations has made for good crops for the villagers of their town, and all they have to do is find one single well on this property. They have done it many times.
Rosa Elisabetta takes off her sweater and pulls the nightgown over her head.There are only glimpses of her in the mirror above the sink, a mirror veined with flaws, a translucent elbow, a swollen knob at the bottom of it, here are the gray tendrils of her curls around the severe lines of her chin and cheeks; the light moves over her and through her in her nakedness, the light is an affliction, she bears up under it, because she is a beauty even as an old woman, the men will clamor to lie with her, and she climbs into the bathtub and leans her striated face against the porcelain of the side of the tub; she knows the feel of the polished wood of the divining rod, it is the wood of the umbrella pine and it has been polished and tanned until it is like the hide of a cow; she knows that creation of this divining rod is controlled by emissaries from the heavens. A vision is upon her and this is its material.
Her grandfather had the women chasing after him all the way to his death.The women followed after him and his father, even that night, le amiche abandoning a wedding party and its black sedans, jumping out of moving cars, and they were following her grandfather and his father as they worked their way across the farm belonging to the mayor. A procession of diviners.The men were working their way across the fields, with the sticks of their trade, but they were finding nothing. They had begun to sweat. They had begun to worry. The ragazzi trailed the grandfather and the great-grandfather, across the fields, the ragazzi already drinking wine. No one knew where this drinking wine would lead, except that at the end of drinking wine, the men would find the water, because it was always so. And there would be a bon- fire, and the hermit who lived in a shack by the railroad tracks would bring out his concertina and his pet rat. This was the one field between here and the city where there was no water.They'd never before faced the possibility of failure, the Viscusis, because they knew Gypsies. That's how the story went, thought Rosa Elisabetta, in the bathtub, her soiled clothes on the floor.
The mayor would not take no for an answer.
There was nothing to do but fabricate a response from the divining rods. Nothing to do but fake it. It was her greatgrandfather who suggested this. Her grandfather didn't want to do it. Because he was a moral man and he felt that it would do no good for their reputation. Tuttavia, ha detto troppo una bugia assurda.
Here is what the divining rod felt like in the hands of the men. Smooth but burdensome.You carried it as if it might break apart at any moment, as if it were a ceramic relic from the sixteenth century, and then you carried the divining stick into the field, and when the water was there under the ground, the stick trembled, as if it were in the midst of a Bernini ecstasy. The way her grandmother trembled, her grandmother who almost became a nun, or the way her mother trembled, who was among those who followed the men around in the field that very night with the wine. They watched the wedding, they jumped out of the car, they followed the men into a field, waiting for the men to find the water so that they could have the bonfire. Soon they would dance to the music of the concertina. That night, the Viscusis had to work fast, because that night they added a new skill to their repertoire: lying.
The mayor and his lackeys, armed, emerged from a copse, and now they watched as the Viscusis came to the most distant hectare of the mayor's lands. They stood off to one side, and Marco Viscusi, her grandfather, held the divining rod, and it trembled in his hands, a steady, unearthly trembling, if a playacted one, and Claudio said, "Father in heaven," or muttered another oath that would make it seem as though this were the work of the angels who sat right at the lip of the proscenium of all the hosts.
"Dig here, dig here," Marco told them. But the mayor threw down the shovels and said,"No, you dig.We'll be back in an hour." "Okay, I'm coming in now, Mom. Okay? I'm going to go ahead and remove the chain."
She smelled them, Rosa Elisabetta, flush against the past, the cocktail onions, the breath of her husband, Meandro, the foul collars of his work shirts. And then her daughter pounding on the door outside, shouting to be let in. She could hear the voices yammering in the other room: bladder-control problems, the recount. She could hear the unfed cat whining. But she was a century back, when the Viscusis were sprinting across the fields, gunfire crackling over their heads, gathering up their things, making for the coast, leaving even their umbrella pines behind, that the mayor might burn them that night in his fireplace, cursing the name of Viscusi. Let this be a lesson to others! Off to America, in the company of the easy women from the fields, one of them already with child. That would be her own mother, the tyrant of Dyker Heights.
Copyright © by Rick Moody