I'm not supposed to write in first person. Or at least, not about myself. That's the new way, I guess, or maybe the right way. But I don't know how to introduce Samantha Hunt's new novel Mr. Splitfoot without talking about Hunt herself, and I don't know how to do that without saying that I met her more than a decade ago in New York, shortly after McSweeney's published her first story. She came into the McSweeney's store—the weirdo one up on 16th Street and Seventh Avenue, not the one they made later that was dedicated to superheroes and had tutoring in back. I was sitting up at the desk that me and two interns made, which had my head about three inches from the ceiling. She came in with her boyfriend and she gave me a book she'd written and made herself by hand. There wasn't really any reason to give it to me. I was just some nobody who was sort of tangentially connected to McSweeney's(and on my way out, by which I mean soon to be fired, but that's another story). But I understood why she did it. She did it because she was happy to be published. She was so happy she wanted to make something and give it to someone. And I was there. It was the kind of thing I used to do, but usually when I did this kind of gift-giving bad things happened, like I got fired from a temp job in Seattle, and sort of vaguely accused of stalking someone.
Anyway, I don't want to ramble, though I could. I have more stories here I want to tell, but I'm gonna dial it down. My point is Samantha Hunt is a good person. She is a generous person and a creative person. I have this secret theory that all bad writing comes out of character flaws. But then if that were true, it'd mean good writers were good people. And we all know that isn't true. (I heart V. S. Naipaul.) But a lot of shitty writing, I think we can agree, comes from character flaws like pride, and the many ways pride expresses itself. But enough of this.
Mr. Splitfoot is Samantha Hunt's new novel, out January 5. It's about an orphan girl who grows up in a house run by a woman who holds séances. This girl's story is told, and so is her story as a woman. Ruth's niece is pregnant and Ruth comes to find her, and takes her on a journey. In this excerpt, Ruth and her niece are talking about motherhood, and the sacrifices of motherhood, and how having children makes you constantly fear their death. Which is true.
An excerpt from 'Mr. Splitfoot'
We'd be able to travel a lot faster if all these mountains weren't in the way. Up we go. Down we go. Up to the sky again. This road follows a ridge through state land, and once we reach the top, the going is easier in the clouds. I expect bear or moose. I look for deer-crossing signs. There's a closed ranger's station and four or five shuttered hunting camps. No large mammals appear. Around one turn in the road, the sun is setting. It's cold and it looks like we'll be sleeping outside tonight. But then around the next turn, we see a large building up ahead, a series of stone shards cut into the cliff like the Wicked Witch's castle. Its lights are coming on. There are diamond-shaped windows, some with blue glass, some with gold. We hear singing inside. Hymns, I think, until I recognize South Pacific. "I'm Gonna to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair" and, as we get closer, "Willkommen" from Cabaret. Ruth rings the bell.
"Yes?" A voice greets us over the intercom.
Ruth says nothing. "Hi. It's Cora."
"I'll send someone down."
Ruth exhales in measured, forced breaths.
A nun opens the door.
"Good evening." A squat toadstool in very comfortable shoes and suntan support hose. "I'm Sister Leah." Dressed in a habit. Every synthetic fiber is made to stretch and shape. "What brings you here so late?"
"We were walking by."
"You walked all the way up here? Hiking? A pregnant hiker? My."
"Come in." Sister Leah pokes a finger under her wimple. She has papery cheeks. "Come in." She takes the measure of my belly. The downy fur of her chin trembles. We have a seat on a bench in the foyer. It's draped with two acrylic afghans. The inside of the building is as plain as the exterior is magnificent. "One moment, please. I need to notify Sister Kate of your arrival." Leah disappears down a hallway.
I smell food and cooking gas. There's a crucifix made of yellow pine. There's beige paint, a vase of fake flowers on a wall pedestal, and a series of portraits, Mother after Mother. The song becomes unmistakable, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Two windows focus our attention on the dizzying view and its command, Look outside yourself, but I'm too tired to look anywhere. I lift my legs onto the bench, going back to back with Ruth. She stiffens so I can rest through "Happy Talk" and "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," a local favorite. "Some Enchanted Evening" gets interrupted. The convent falls silent except for the occasional door opening and closing down unseen hallways. Sister Leah does not return. No one shows up. It's warm and dry. I have a hundred one-second dreams in between the roll and jerk of my sleeping neck. I wipe drool from my lips. Ruth stands, walks the hall twice. I lie down. She studies a piece of framed calligraphy. "To set the mind on flesh is death." I roll my lumpy body to one hip. Ruth covers me with an afghan. She lies down on the bench across the hallway.
A bell tolls one, two, three times, followed by a rush of footsteps, people walking above. Then Sister Leah's head. "Are you coming?"
"The bells for Compline. Come."
"Service." The bells keep ringing. "Come."
I can't serve anyone right now. I look out the windows, rub my face awake. The nun leads us down another beige hallway set with heavy wooden chairs. She totters, side to side. I totter behind. The hallway darkens up to a door. Nuns pass into a chapel. The crucifix over the altar is carved from dark wood showing Jesus's ribs and thick nails driven between the bones of his feet. On either side of the chapel, two pews are filled with robed monks. The nuns and a few laypeople find seats in the small nave facing the altar. It's dark, smells of wax. Sister Leah passes me a breviary for Ruth and me to share. "Don't try to sing along. And don't talk when it's done. Great Silence begins immediately afterward."
"'The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.'" The monks sing in voices high as girls', even two who require oxygen tanks. The girls don't sing. The monks are round under their robes, minds clearly not set on flesh. They chant the Psalms in alternating voices, one team to the other, varying the amounts of silence between verses. The calculus of these sacraments could take a lifetime to decode back to 26 letters. "'Render evil to those who spy on me.'" Brown Jesus is almost naked, slender and long, tortured. The wound carved into his side looks like a vagina.
On the road a few days back, a woman stopped me. "Your first?"
"It's awful. They cut you open right up the middle." She gestured to her crotch. "You get what I'm saying?" Her finger points in my face. "They are going to use scissors on your twat. Got me?"
The monks sing, "'Do I eat the flesh of bulls and drink the blood of goats?'"
She was the fourth mother to tell me about her episiotomy. A collection of scars. Or maybe it's a hazing ritual. If Jesus is to move us beyond the flesh, why make him sexy? Because beyond the flesh is not the point.
The monks sing, "'When you see thieves, you make them your friends.'"
I'm shushed by Sister Leah as we file out of the chapel, though I hadn't said anything. No one speaks—the Great Silence—but I hear plenty: footsteps, clothing, carpeting, a cough. Upstairs the nun opens a door labeled ST. TITUS. One twin bed, a reading chair, a lamp, and a crucifix. Only one bed. Ruth doesn't seem to care and no talking allowed. So. She takes a seat in the chair and shuts her eyes. She's got no curiosity or cause for concern. I'm not like that. I can't sleep until I try the lamp's switch, look out the window, feel the weave of the blanket. I have to make sure I'm safe, make sure for the baby.
There are words in my throat like bits of gravel, questions about the monks and the strange songs they sing. Out of habit I almost loose these words on Ruth but stop myself. In the Great Silence, I hear my body like being underwater with the sounds of my heart, my breath, the baby's rhythm. Silence is anything but, at least at first. If Ruth does this every day, I can do it for one night. I switch off the light and lie down, but it's hard to sleep now that it would be easy. The baby moves a heel or elbow across my stomach.
Someone passes down the hallway. Night ticks by. Quiet as rocks that grow in layers and erode in too much sound. Does Ruth mind the silence? Is her brain still filled with words and thoughts that agitate her? Or did she give up all that when she gave up talking? In the air between us, her breath seems solid, a pill I can swallow and feel what it is to be Ruth, to be silent.
Eventually Linda Thompson got some of her voice back. I can wait around until the same thing happens to Ruth. I've got a lot of questions I need to ask her, like, How does she know herself without a mother? How does she know herself without sound? I guess she knows the shape of things that aren't there instead. Imagined or borrowed ideas like: mothers make food; mothers provide homes; mothers tell stories before sleep comes and remain steady when you are sick; mothers answer the phone when everyone else is asleep.
El was homeless when she went into labor with me, living on the streets of Troy, having contractions on the curb, and still she never hated me. She was alone through her whole labor. Nurses were few between in the welfare ward. She did the work herself, and at the very end an old man who'd specialized in podiatry in med school caught me. "You keeping this?" he asked her.
"That's my daughter." She held me close as she could, not alone anymore.
I've been a little shit, a spoiled, selfish brat. In this silence, when I close my eyes, I'm standing on stage and El's the only audience member, clapping her heart out. El made herself into a really good mom with nothing, rubbing dirty hands together. And then I slunk off. I had no idea how hard this was. All I've got is a loose plan: Tell the baby it's lucky to be here, then spend the rest of the time watching out for wolves. It's not much of a plan, only slightly more evolved than El's for me, which was something like: Don't throw bleach on the baby's face. That's a good plan too. I'll incorporate that into mine.
Even when I try to be silent, I can't because worry is like words, hard to stop them from getting in, messing up your house. I need to call El. And after we're done here, after I see what Ruth wants me to see, I will. I'll go back. I'll let El be a grandma. She deserves that. She deserves way more than that.
Ruth's hands are squished together under one cheek, a sleeping child from a Christmas card. One of the sisters shuts off the exterior floodlight and the window disappears, but I still feel it lurking somewhere out there—a clear idea of what being a mother means, and every day I'm getting closer.
When I wake in the night, there's a pair of knobby knees under thick brown hose in front of me. It's still dark. I look up from the knees. The nun smiles. Her headgear conceals all but a few silver-brown hairs, the thin ruddiness of blown-out pores. "I saw you at Compline." She tugs at a thread that's unraveled from her wimple.
Ruth sits up.
The nun continues. "So it's time to go."
"What?" I rub my face.
"Time to leave."
"You're kicking us out in the middle of the night?" Not very Christian.
"We're going together."
"We don't have a car, lady. Sister." I swing my legs to the ground. Dig fingernails into my scalp.
"No car?" She holds her chin. "OK. We'll walk."
"Can't we wait until morning?"
"I'm leaving the convent."
"But we like it here."
"You wouldn't after a while."
"Why do you need us?" I whine. I'm tired.
"Because the Lord told me you'd come."
I look out the one small window. The Lord didn't tell me anything.
"I'm Sister Margaret. Just Margaret now. Come on."
"I'm Cora. She's Ruth."
It's hard to look tough while slipping on maternity jeans. I tie my hair into a ponytail. Ruth finds our bags. Why don't we resist? Why do I have the idea that I'm in training and must meet every challenge?
Sister Margaret heads downstairs and we follow. She hesitates by one door, holding its handle without opening it. She bows her head against the wood.
"Where's that go?"
"The enclosure. The cloister. Sisters only." Her wimple keeps much hidden.
"Exactly." She wags her finger, smiles. "Wouldn't you like to know."
"I know you would."
"You're not going to tell me?"
"Why buy the cow when the milk's free?"
"But I was never even looking to buy this cow."
"But what is it? What does that even mean? An enclosure?"
"It's space. Protected space, fenced in, walled off, boxed up."
"Why? What's in the space?"
"I can't tell you."
"A girl's got to have her secrets."
The night air's cold. Ruth pulls on my hoodie, covering her head. It's filthy. We need a Laundromat. She adjusts the pack, hefting my bag up on one shoulder. The nun looks at the stars. Ruth starts walking and we follow. The nun switches on a flashlight beside me. "There," she says.
That's different, talking company. "Why are you leaving?"
"The Lord said someone would come when it was time to see my kid again."
"You have a kid?"
"How, like, how did the Lord tell you? In words?"
"How'd you know it was the Lord and not your own voice? I'd have trouble separating the two."
"Yes. You might."
I think that's an insult. "So. You have a kid?"
Ruth looks back at me.
"A daughter. From before."
"How long have you been at the convent?"
"Since she was eight months."
The mountains are moist before dawn. "You left an eight-month-old?"
The beam of her flashlight bobs. "I did."
"What'd you do all that time you were gone?"
"We support a brother monastery. I was a seamstress. Lots of silence." The nun uses her fingertips to tap her side, then her shoulders.
"What do the monks do while you're supporting them?"
"Pray." She rubs her hands together to stop the tapping. She moves faster.
"What'd your kid do?"
"Her father took care of her." When she looks at me now, the flashlight's under her chin, a horror show. "That's a cruel question," she tells me.
"Sorry. I haven't had anyone to talk to in a long while."
"Yes. Your friend's quiet."
"My aunt. She doesn't talk."
"She doesn't talk?"
"I'm pretty good at that too."
The damp air's medicinal. I like the privacy of walking at night and how it fuels dread and excitement. If something interesting's going to happen—say, aliens landing—it's going to happen in private. It's going to happen at night.
"To be in touch with our smallness," the nun says. "Closer to God up here."
"Feels that way."
"The world needs stillness."
"I wasn't always still. I sat with the dying. Cooked for the hungry. Once we visited prisoners. I made decisions. I helped pregnant women like yourself. I spun thread."
The nun sizes me up. "Why? What did you do back in reality that was so great?"
"Wow. Real important stuff."
She's a mean nun. Even if she's right.
The sun blues the sky. We head down her mountain into the valley of the next peak. I have to lean way back to stay balanced. "What's with the show tunes?"
"Sister Kate. I'll miss that."
The road flattens eventually, and we head into town. We leave the berry briar and white pines. We pass through a forest of car dealerships, three on the left, two on the right. Despite their open, optimistic nature—broad plate-glass display windows, generous lots with wide drives—only one of the five dealerships remains in business. A battery of fast-food restaurants lures travelers off the clover-leafs. Sister Margaret sets her hands evenly on her hips. She stops walking. "What's that sound?"
I stop to listen. Water running. We must be back by the canal. "The Erie." We should have taken a canoe down the canal instead of all this walking.
"I haven't been off the mountain in a while."
"Why are you going to find your kid now?"
"Think she forgot about me?"
"Listen." Margaret sharpens again. "Do you have any idea what's about to happen to your life?"
"You won't ever know peace again."
"I was a terrible mom. I couldn't stop worrying. I thought about men with machetes, pedophiles, high staircases, electrical sockets. You name it. Once on the street, a stranger chucked my daughter under the chin. He thought she was cute. I went home and covered her with anti-bacterial gel. She was three months old." Her eyes roam the air behind me as she makes her list. "Redneck drunk drivers, brain damage from a fall off her changing table. I thought about her soft head all the time. I couldn't sleep and I couldn't let her sleep. Sleep looked like death. Eating looked like choking. Friends looked like murder.
"Hormones attack you," she says. "Hormones will try to kill you."
"You didn't let your baby sleep?"
"I imagined danger so well, I made it real."
"You didn't let your baby eat?"
"Her father took better care of her than I could." She looks up. "Motherhood," she says, "despite being immensely common, remains the greatest mystery, and all the language people use to describe it, kitschy words like 'comfort' and 'loving arms' and 'nursing,' is to convince women to stay put."
The sun lands on us awkwardly. I don't say it, but I think she's forgetting half. There's a lot about mothering that's good. I had a really good mom. We walk on in silence.
"Where are you going?"
"My aunt's taking me somewhere."
I hesitate. "I have no idea."
"Exactly. That's what I'm telling you." She looks at Ruth. "Maybe she's hardening you up into the warrior you'd better be before that baby arrives."
Feels a little bit like more mother-hazing, so I prepare for another episiotomy story, the horrors of child birth, blah, blah, but one doesn't come.
"How old is your girl now?"
"Well, what are you going to do? What's the plan?"
"Catch a bus to Forked Lake. Find her. See if she'll forgive me. Let me in her life somehow."
"What if she won't?"
"Yeah," Margaret says. "Then there's that."
In town the nun points to the pharmacy where the buses stop. HALF GALLON OF MILK $1.50. The terminal's not open yet. The nun takes off her wimple and shakes out her hair. With the wimple removed, I can see her neck and it's a horrible thing. Thick brown, purple, and black lines, ligature marks, damaged and ghastly as if she'd been hanged then resuscitated or her wimple had been fastened so tightly it choked her. I worry her head will detach entirely without it now. She sees me staring and nods. "I'm telling you, it's not easy. Life and death are not clean, separate functions." She gently touches the marks on her neck.
I want to get away from her, but she keeps talking.
"Motherhood makes you a dealer in death. No one tells you this beforehand. You will become obsessed with all the ways a person can go because while it might be easy to deal with the fact that you will one day die, it's not at all easy—totally unacceptable—to deal with the fact that one day your child will die. Do you hear me?"
I nod. I hear her. I do. "What am I supposed to do? Just give up? Not even try to be a good mom?"
The nun exhales. "You've got yourself a real live one here," she says to Ruth, smiling. "Are we done? We're OK?"
Ruth gives her something, money maybe, like she'd hired the nun to teach me, though clearly that can't be true.
Margaret tucks whatever it is into her bra. She has a seat, waiting for the bus with a drunk and a soldier on a bench out front, feet planted for battle, rubbing her neck.
"Good luck," I mumble.
"Same to you." Then the nun asks God to be with us. Then the drunk hums "O Night Divine" though Christmas is still a long way off.
Excerpted from Mr.Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. Copyright © 2016 by Samantha Hunt. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.