by Mara Jebsen
Rodin was famous for his fragments, and, in his era, hotly defended the choice to sculpt just a hand, or a torso, or a foot melting back into its original rock. The character Bernard, in Virginia Woolf's experimental “The Waves” seems to have revealed something about Woolf's thoughts on the unfinished, as he goes about talking, story-spinning, and worrying about the way life seems to accumulate more than culminate, so that all we get is phrases, bits. While coherence–in story, in body–provides a comforting pleasure for the audience, artists who know how to make wholes sometimes get weary of the falseness that an orderly whole brings with it–and take a pleasure in the fragment, the seemingly unfinished, strangely perfect, part.
I know, from my work as a writing teacher, that almost any student can produce a promising fragment, but very few can manage a coherent whole–in terms of idea, or story– without a great deal of coaxing, insistance, and endless re-writing. The work of a beginner is to complete the fragment. But perhaps the work of a master is to let the fragment be.
As a beginning storyteller myself, I find that whole tales are elusive, and the images arrive like little shards of a broken mirror. What to make of them–that's the hard part. What follows is the first piece of a tiny “novel” that is all pieces, inspired by a Sufi tale I heard three years ago, and subsequently garbled in my mind. In it, a man is visited by three different messengers, all strangers, each of whom require that he leap violently away from the life he is leading, and begin again. In the third phase of the man's life, he begins to show signs of spiritual enlightenment, and he ends as a mystic. The story, for some reason, made dozens of images–partial ones stuck in angled mirror-shards–arrive in my head for two years. In my version, the eventual mystic is a girl. She is young, wealthy, blank.
I. White Mediterranean
Woman on a white yacht, in profile. Pitched out against the clear blue water; elbows slung, listless over the painted white rail.
Afterwards, travelers will claim she’d always been “cinematic.” In fact, this only meant that as long as they’d known her, she’d been shrouded in the effects of gossip and wealth. Then, in a flash on the yacht one June day, a shadow and the jut of a shoulder blotted her out; an unknown man, dressed in a deep black, leaned down to speak, at length, in her ear. He stepped back; un-blotting her.
We were given the sight of her back again; but she was rigid now, then concave in the belly; and then, with a shake, fluid, decisive. She crossed her wrists and gathered the hem of her dress; we saw her spirit it off in a single pull, to reveal a wild length of shimmering skin. As she tossed the dress aside, the speeding yacht entered a patch of almost un-endurable Mediterranean sunlight. Things went blank, bone-white and bleaching; the world itself a glimmery business of white against white, like a silver fish we’d almost glimpsed earlier—thing were erased by air; things were only things when they moved—
One witness was embarrassed to say later he only knew she was there at all marks of her areolas, a trim dark patch of hair; by her red-painted nails, and, as she turned, the shadow created by the buttocks. It was in launching, lifting a knee to the railing, that she was truly visible; the feminine form momentarily hunched, frog-like, then elongated into stark dusty long-legged blue against the greenblack water. She leapt, in a flash. We’d say later that’s why it took us so long to roar, to emerge in a wave of consternation from the recesses of the shady boat, to where we draped ourselves over the salty brink of the railing. The more observant among us would report: along the thin bones of her back, scars and bruises—haphazard, as if she’d been whipped with a knotted rope. A fanciful witness insisted there was flat, still water and small spiral twirling in the exact spot she went down. Others remembered the heads of her would-be rescuers receding in the distance, as slick and round as oily otters in the confusion of the chopping waves; but all had to accept that we were not fast enough–neither she nor that startling, startling, fish-opal body of hers were ever found.
The story dominated the papers for a few months that year, but her husband, a thin-lipped and bland-faced mogul, made no comment. A year later he remarried, which made the papers, too. Though the ship itself was scoured, its staff thoroughly interrogated, none could identify the man who’d whispered in her ear. None could fathom what he’d said to make her jump.