Matt Bell is already taking the leap from “writer-to-watch” to writer watched. This weekend, we have an excerpt from his just-released novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. It is something to behold. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
AND IN THIS ROOM: The love letters we wrote to each other in the months of our courtship, aflame. This then the last seconds of their existence, when we burned them on the eve of our wedding, when my wife said that the words inked by my hand and by hers were the words of lovers but not spouses and that after we were joined we would need new letters with which to profess new promises.
But never again did we write each other, because afterward we always had each other so close.
What I would have given to be able to stand the heat of those old immolations, to have been brave enough to thrust my hand into their flaming shapes so as to read whom it was my wife had loved, so as to again become that person.
And in this room: the moment of our first lovemaking, which did not occur in the house but in that other country where we lived when we were first married, its cities once reachable by the road that led around the lake that, until we lost the head of its trail, could have taken us back home.
And in this room: a moment even earlier, the first time my wife raised her dress to me, exposing her battered shins. And then in another the first time I saw the bruises that blacked her knees and tendered the skin of her thighs. And then, in another, the first time, long after those first times, when I realized she’d done this to herself.
And in this room: a memory of my parents, a story I had told my wife. My parents, who should have taught me how to be a parent myself. Who tried but perhaps could not succeed, for what did they know of families on this side of the lake, the mountains? In their own country, children lived and lived and lived, and so many of our structures were unnecessary there, would be bright madness if erected in their shining world.
And in this room: the blanched face of the father of my wife in the moment I asked for his daughter. How it was my wife’s permission I needed, and yet I did not seek it until others had promised her hand.
And in this room: my father’s voice, telling me the purpose of a marriage was the improvement of a man and a woman, each meant to make the other better. It is enough, he said, and also, You cannot expect to make the world better, not by any love. He said it was only to my wife that I was responsible for my actions, and only to me that she could be held to the same standards. And as he said this I knew he believed it, that he did not know he was wrong, and that in his wrongness it was his duty to me he had not considered.
And in this room: the smile on his face as he said those words, which at the time I mistook for friendship, a bond we had not previously enjoyed.
And in this room: My younger father, years earlier, telling me what it means to be a man. My ungrayed mother, telling me what it means to be a husband. These two talks, which did not take place at the same time, joined here as they never were, so that I would be reminded that their advice was anything but the same thing—and also I wondered how my wife knew, how she knew these parts of me to take, to put into her own deep house as if they were hers— and it was the fingerling who provided the answer, who reminded me of what flesh she took to make her moon.
And in this room, in this series of rooms: Why we moved to the dirt between the lake and the woods, the reason different than what always I had believed before. And how this was something she never told me, even though we were husband and wife. And in each room of that floor one action of a sequence was made distinct from the last, so that the crush of her father’s body atop her mother’s was separated from how his knees punched into her thighs, pinning them to their mattress. Then the blows she struck across the meat of his forearms as they moved his hands to her throat. Then how her father choked her mother. Then how he lifted her head by the throat, then how he struck the headboard with her skull until he had broken both.
And in this room: another reason my wife had not at first wanted children of her own, even as I wanted them more than anything else. The genes of a killer, the genes of someone killed; half of what her parents had, but which half?
And in this room, another space, filled by the fingerling saying, that is how it should be. that is how you should make it to be.
And in this room: How my wife had known what her father was, how he had hurt her too, and how she had lived with the hurt because it meant that her mother received less. How after my wife left his house for mine, then her mother had no one left to protect her. How my wife blamed herself for this, and how she also blamed me, for taking her away.
And in this room: The sound of my wife singing herself to sleep. The sound of her voice keeping her company. The sound of a song that made temporary ghosts to appear and then to sing her songs along. How she punished herself for her loss. How she promised that her own children would be born into a world without sadness, without tragedy, without death, or at least without the death of parents. How she determined to make that world and only then to give me the children I claimed to want, and how she planned to keep those children safe. How if she could not keep this promise, she would rather not have any children at all, no matter how I begged. And what bruises accompanied these words. What burns and shallow cuts. What years those wounds lasted, scabbed over, healed, replaced, scarred white. Those pale textures, all previously hidden in places I would never look, or where I had stopped looking, or else in plain sight where again I failed to see or understand.
And in this room: how I told my wife that by taking her away I would keep her safe. On some new dirt, I told her, she would no longer hurt herself, no longer visit upon her body what frustrations she gathered from the busy world around her, its tall buildings, its crammed streets. Our new world, it would be quieter, simpler. Our new world, it would be just her, would be just me, just us and the babies I then hoped—that I hoped we both hoped—would become our family. As if to prove my love I should remove her from all that she knew. As if to keep her mine, I had to share her with no one.
And in this room: my wife saying she does not want children, that she has never wanted children.
And in this room: my wife saying that she is tired, that her body aches, that her breasts are sore from years of unpurposed lactation, and that she does not want to live this way.
And in this room: my wife saying Please, saying Please stop.
And in this room: My wife pleading that a husband and a wife are still a family. That two are enough. And then, in another room down the hall, my voice replying, my voice saying, No.
And in this room: all the arguments by which I hoped to leverage her first to try and then to keep trying, even as in the aftermath she hurt her body, then the house and the dirt and the sky.
And in this room: How inside a mother bear a cub might float for months before starting its arc toward birth. How it might remain a tiny bundle of cells, dividing slowly, until the bear’s body decided conditions were right, that there was enough food stored inside the sleeping mother, enough of whatever else it took to make a cub. How my wife thought of this often, this bear-knowledge she knew, as pregnancy after pregnancy we failed to fill her with what stuff she needed to bring forth our child, our children.
And in this room: the moment of the fingerling’s conception, when the half-body of my making entered the half-body of my wife’s, and how from that moment part of me grew inside part of her. And even in that moment her seeing how jealous I was, despite how I tried to hide it, from that first moment until the one months later, when the fingerling passed from her body and into my hand, where while she howled I claimed the two halves of us for myself, so that they might grow inside my flesh instead.
And in this room: the shape of that heartbreak, a slim black tear, the length of a finger.
And in this room: the fingerling’s crib, its small wooden frame, its thin pad and song-spun blanket filthied with the garden dirt.
And in this room: the times my wife touched me while I was asleep, happening here in sequence but cut away from their context, their chronology recognizable only by the changes in my body, in hers. How long she persisted. How I thought throughout that we were already estranged, that in our silences we were to come undone, unravel from our bonds. And yet in this room she ran her hands beneath the sheets, across the width of my widening back, traced her fingers through the salts of the day’s working, then wrapped her arm around the slumbering bulk of my belly, that round shape girthed heavier than that she had first married, that she then still loved.
And in this room: How I touched her too. How every time it left a mark.