Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Author’s note: This is a dream that befalls a character in a novel I wrote called The Amateur. The amateur starts out not quite human, but wishes to be, and along the way he gets his wish—with funny and dreadful consequences—mostly as a result of doing things wrong. In this dream a boundary is crossed—into the unbound erotic, strictly out of one’s control. It’s that whoa-whoa-whoa when the roller coaster, chain-hauled to its highest point, crests at last and suddenly, horribly, you’re facing vast space and a great plunge, inescapable. It’s knowing that nothing can save you, and still you can’t help but yell. After writing this I recognized it as my own forbidden fruit story, and then for a while called it “Dust.”

A toddler rides his mother’s hip from a low white house to the upper slope of a meadow where apple trees lurch from the uneven ground. Ripe Pippins, Kings, and brawny Gravensteins break their own branches. A hot wind fetches up from tide flats down along the edge of the fields; the apples seethe in the afternoon sun. In the high grass beneath the trees lie numbers of fallen fruit, half-consumed by deer and insects, cores browning sweetly. The air is a pungent broth of bruised grass, the stench of mud and salt, and fermenting sugar.

Accompanying the mother and child is a tall man with a brown beard and light blue eyes; a twine sack is slung on one shoulder. Beneath the trees he leans towards the woman, speaking in an urgent, absorbed way. The woman takes the sack from his shoulder, slipping it over her own so that it crosses her chest and lies flat against her right hip. Left arm encircling the damp bundle her baby makes, the woman reaches with her free hand to an overhead branch, gives it a shake, and laughs as an apple plunges out of the leaves, meets the ground with a thump and rolls sturdily into the man’s booted toe. The child, legs gripped like a vise about his mother’s belly, the small of her back, watches the woman’s face avidly and also laughs. Still talking, the man bends over, feels for the apple, straightens and takes an absentminded bite. The woman stops laughing, looks away. The baby squirms down his mother’s leg to the ground where the sun hones itself on tall grass blades, and hornets stir the torpid air over the rotting fruit. At once the child begins to smite his head against the mother’s thigh. Again. Again.

The man, still chewing, opens his mouth wide for another bite, then another, ear tipped to one shoulder in an effort to subdue the monstrous fruit. The woman smirks, bends over and settles the baby once more on her hip. Before the man has finished swallowing he too begins to laugh and cough excitedly, brandishing the thick core high above his head like a prize, then tossing it deep into the woods at the edge of the meadow. Still cackling, he gestures widely into the dark green branches over their heads.

“Were there ever such apples?” Pleasure rips his voice. “Hey, look there, and there. The biggest I’ve seen!”

The baby, provoked by the man’s exuberance, also shouts at the trees, “Hey you apples! Hey, hey!” The mother turns, surprised, smiling. The child grinds his bare heels into the woman’s crotch and hip, dragging at the shoulder of her dress. “Hey!” he screeches. “Apples! You apples!”

The woman calmly pulls up her dress and captures the child’s bright face in the V of one hand. “Hey you,” she says. “That’s enough.”

For a moment there is only the pop of a small airplane high overhead, and the mutter of hornets about their knees. Then the bearded man speaks. “Well.” Trying to slow things down. “These are real beauties.” Thoughtfully he wrings another apple from its stem.

“Beauties,” the child mumbles, not looking at the stranger. “Mama…I want a beauty.”

The man, flattered, glances at the child: bright thistledown hair, nose an unopened bud, the pink defenseless mouth. “You bet,” he responds. “They’re beauties, all right. You show me one and I’ll reach it down. How about this? It’s a real beauty.” The apple he targets is not only stout but stained an elegant chartreuse where its blush runs out. It releases easily into his hand but the child rears back with a howl.

“No Mama I don’t want that beauty!”

Mechanically the woman rotates her hips: left, right, left, right. She stares across the field. “It’s just an apple, you don’t have to take it.” Mixed with the scent of pine sap and decomposing fruit the man can smell his own sweat. He hears a crow chuckle and nods at the twine bag still slung across the woman’s shoulder. “So you want to pick these or something?”

“Sure,” her smile is casual, she turns to the child. “C’mon baby, let’s catch us a pie.” The child’s brow puckers, both hands rake the air.

“Beauties! Mama, look at the beauties—”

“I said that’s enough.” Humming, the woman reaches overhead. Again. Again. The man waits, watching as the child kicks a tense heel at the fruit bulging his mother’s sack, whines, then plucks at her collar bone while butting his pelvis hard against her waist. This assumes a regular rhythm to which they are both, evidently, accustomed, the woman indifferent, the child relaxing at last. A breeze rifles the leaves overhead.

The man, embarrassed, turns and reaches high, murmuring to nobody “Here’s a good one.” He hefts the fruit, which drops with an audible slap against his palm. Again. Again. His admiration is unfeigned; he marvels at the staunch authoritative flesh.

Without thinking the child times the thrust of his hips to coincide with the weighted slap of the apple. His lips move as he stares into the branches overhead. When the man gamely seizes the very apple on which the child has focused—“this one?”—the baby catches his breath, then shakes his head, self-consciously points at another. “This one, this beauty?” The child grins, points again, and the man’s beard parts in a wary smile. “Oh yeah, this one’s a beaut.” The mother cuts a look at the child, frowns. Each apple the child coyly refuses disappears into the sack.

The man gambols beneath the spreading branches, assumes ridiculous poses, pulls down apple after apple. “Not this one, neither? Not this one? Oh, you’re the little slave driver, ain’t you. And this? Listen, you better watch out, you. And this? Watch out, you’d better—”

Soon the child can no longer keep up with the man’s antics, bumps his belly uneasily against the mother’s waist, and echoes under his breath, “Not this one! Hey watch out you! Hey! You better…” The sun is hot. The stranger’s eyes are blue. Hornets menace the hem of the mother’s skirt. Looking up, the child sees only apples, imperative, throbbing gravely. “Watch out—”

Still the man’s boots blindly trample the grass, macerate the ruined flesh of the windfalls. “This one?” He slyly tosses it at the woman, who lunges, the startled child clutching at the sleeve of her dress. A gust of wind churns the apples on their slim, equivocating stems. A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand apples.

“Watch out,” the child whimpers, tears dashing from outraged eyes. Then wails, “Watch out for the beauties, watch out for the beauties!” Writhing in his mother’s arms. “Watch out!” Striking at the air between himself and the impending fruit.

The man’s hands drop to his sides; the woman struggles with her child. Past the bottom of the field where the harsh bright grasses give out, the exposed flats of a broad estuary shine dully brown. The air out there is razored by the flight of herons, kingfishers, silvery gulls. Down on the tarmac road that divides the meadow from the flats, a gray sedan slows, turns up the drive, and advances on the low white house.

Field Notes

“The founding and fading myth of Adam and Eve is a great escape story, the story of a failed breakout. Transgression is the attempt to find out exactly what it is that is impossible to escape from. In seeking forbidden knowledge about God’s creation they discovered just what there was to fear about God. The biblical story dramatizes, whatever else it does, the link in our minds between curiosity and release, and how our ideas of freedom depend upon our finding out what we have to fear. We find out what the world is like by testing it, by testing ourselves against it.”

– From psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s “Houdini’s Box

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