Dorothea Dreams (Heirloom Books)Suzy McKee Charnas
Suzy McKee Charnas
With an introduction by
About the Aqueduct Press
Aqueduct Press’s series of Heirloom Books aims to bring back into print and preserve work that has helped make feminist science fiction what it is today — work that though clearly of its time is still pleasurable to read, work that is thought-provoking, work that can still speak powerfully to readers. The series takes its name from the seeds of older strains of vegetables, so valuable and in danger of being lost. Our hope is to keep these books from being lost, as works that do not make it into the canon so often are.
L. Timmel Duchamp
This book is dedicated to Maxine, who never did have the painting career that she aspired to. She was too busy being a textile designer (and eventually the head of a studio) in order to keep us kids in Cheerios. And to every woman who feels that kind of creative urge, whether she gets to satisfy the craving or not.
Published by Aqueduct Press
PO Box 95787
Seattle, WA 98145-2787
Copyright © 2010 by Suzy McKee Charnas
Introduction, copyright © 2010 by Delia Sherman
This story is entirely fictional and no character in it is modeled on or intended to resemble any real individual, living, dead, or reincarnated.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means, including mechanical, electric, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Cover Illustrations by Anna Tambour
Book Design by Kathryn Wilham
With grateful acknowledgment to all those who read this book in manuscript for me. Any errors that survive their attentions are to be laid at the door of the author alone. In particular, to Kay Weinrod for vetting my Englishman’s Trans-Atlantic English; Rosalie Segura and Gerald Gonzales for dealing with some of my New York-type ignorance of New Mexico; Dr. David Bennahum for checking out medical aspects of the story; Patricia Powers, who knows something about making a career in the fine arts; Bethynia Dougherty, who didn’t like this book in an earlier draft and was at least partly right; Norman Thayer and Ray Schowers for legal advice; and others without whom the completed achievement, however that now measures up, would have been far less than it is.
I have been a great fan of Suzy McKee Charnas’s writing since 1978, when I first read Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. I was in graduate school at an institution that had much in common with Holdfast, and anything that addressed the logical endpoint of a systematic devaluation of women was like a light in a dark place. She was an emotional realist, an observer of the Way Things Are who chose to ex press her observations metaphorically, in fantasy and science fiction. Furthermore, she had a lovely, evocative, crisp prose style that made me think of Robert Frost and Ursula K. Le Guin. She was, in fact, My Kind Of Writer.
Between my orals and my dissertation, I missed the Weyland stories that later made up The Vampire Tapestry, but I was enchanted by her New York City young adult fantasy The Bronze King. Clearly, this Suzy McKee Charnas not only knew her anthropology and her history, but also her folk lore and the structures of myth and fairytale, not to mention the emotional and physical landscape of a city that I too had grown up in.
When Dorothea Dreams came out in 1987, I snapped it up, knowing only that it would be good. Now that I have read The Vampire Tapestries, I realize that the voice of Dorothea is a variation on the voice of the Weyland stories. At the time, I was chiefly struck by how spare and unyielding the prose in Dorothea Dreams is — like the desert landscape it describes, and like Dorothea herself. I also remember how real everything felt: the desert, Albuquerque, Dorothea’s house and splendid wall, Pinto Street, Ricky’s suffering. Blanca’s asthma.
Now, Dorothea Dreams is a thematically and structurally complex and subtle book, not the story of a single secondary character. Still, my most vivid memories of that first reading are all of Blanca. I myself was an asthmatic child, and I knew the terror of the band around the chest, the panicky feeling that your body is fighting against its own survival, the helpless fury of knowing that you can’t do almost anything you want to do because you might have an attack. And although I had written several short stories and a novel by then and should have known better, it seemed obvious to me that no one who had not experienced that helpless fury, triggered by just that physical event, could possibly have written about it with the unsentimental clarity Suzy had brought to Blanca.
Not long after, at the 1987 World Fantasy Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, Ellen Kushner (in her character as new friend and guide to the Wonderful World of Pro SF) marched me up to Suzy McKee Charnas, introduced us, and sent us off, in her Ellenish way, to have a drink and get acquainted. I bought Suzy a scotch and did my best not to burble. What I did do, in the course of telling her how much I loved Dorothea Dreams, was ask if she herself had asthma. Very kindly, she said something like, “Well, I researched it. And then I made some stuff up. I’m glad it worked.”
As I recall, we went on to discuss research, its uses and abuses, because I was still a baby writer and Suzy is a generous woman (and I was buying the scotch). But for years, I thought of Dorothea Dreams as the book with the asthmatic child in it, and oh, yeah, wasn’t there a wall in the desert and a ghost?
Re-reading the novel, twenty-three years later, I know enough to see how Blanca and her asthma fit in with the ghost and the desert and Dorothea’s wall. Like the plastic doll hands and broken china and rocks that make up the glittering glory that is Dorothea’s masterpiece, the reality of Blanca’s disease and her reaction to it is part of the larger pattern of suffering and response to suffering that gives Dorothea Dreams its shape and emotional power. Every character, primary and secondary, from Ricky to Roberto to the volunteer art teacher Ellie Stern to the dog Mars to Dorothea herself, suffers physically and emotionally and must deal with the extreme physical and emotional suffering of others.
Some of the characters respond better than others, but even the most emotionally competent among them can make errors of judgment when the stakes are high or their resistance is low. On this level, Dorothea Dreams is a meditation on the infinite variety of human frailty and the breakdown of even the toughest character’s coping skills in the face of death. For a domestic-realist, this would have been enough. But Suzy has also written into Dorothea Dreams a political thriller about a corrupt corporation pressuring a long-established Latino neighborhood out of existence and a young man’s coming-of-age and a portrait of the artist as an aging woman. Oh, and a truly creepy ghost story.
In fact, I would claim that Dorothea Dreams is a true interstitial novel, drawing on the themes and conventions of multiple genres in a way that is far more common now than in 1987. Like Dorothea’s wall, writing it was a risky move. But the best art comes from taking risks, as Dorothea’s dying friend Ricky suggests in his response to her telling him that she has destroyed a series of sketches because they were too disturbing:
If you’re lucky enough to have visions to set down, you shouldn’t complain that they aren’t pretty or soothing or entertaining enough for you. You should have the courage of your gifts, but instead you’ve denied your own creative impulse.
Suzy has the courage of her gifts, all right, even when they burden her with visions that are ugly, trou
bling, and upsetting. In every piece she’s written, from Walk to the End of the World to The Furies and “Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast,” she demonstrates her lack of interest in the pretty and the soothing. What Suzy is interested in is nothing less than beauty and truth, even if they’re unfashionable subjects and even if they take her to uncomfortable places.
For me, Dorothea Dreams is the most purely beautiful of her novels. It is certainly the one that speaks most directly to my own fears and obsessions. When I read it, I am proud to be a woman, proud to be an artist, even proud to be asthmatic and mortal and fallible, because they’re all part of being human.
And that’s what art and literature are about, aren’t they? The glory and shame of the human condition.
Delia Sherman writes short fiction and novels for children and adults. Her most recent short stories appear in the Datlow/Windling anthology Coyote Road and in Ellen Datlow’s Poe. Her adult novels are Through a Brazen Mirror, The Porcelain Dove, and The Fall of the Kings, which she wrote with partner Ellen Kushner. Middle-grade fantasies Changeling and The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen are the first two volumes of the New York Between trilogy. She is the editor of Interfictions 1, (with Teodora Goss) and Interfictions 2, (with Christopher Barzak). She lives in New York City with partner Ellen Kushner.
Dorothea straightened wire, bent wire, coiled wire, using her gloved hands, using pliers. She looked up now and again, eyeing the place on the rock where the wire would go, next to a broad band of sparkling white ceramic (bits of broken bathroom fixtures) and glass condensers from old telephone poles. She shucked the gloves and wound some adhesive tape around her fingers and palms as a rough shield against the rusted barbs, but not tightly enough to constrict movement. Already the clear afternoon light had deepened. She went to the wall with a sponge and a brush and cleaned the surface she meant to use. While the stone dried in the arid air, she mixed some glue in an old paint can: not too much to use up before it thickened and dried. She stood on some carefully placed rocks and applied the glue with a painting knife.
While the epoxy set she looked over the wires again and again, her world contracted to the prepared surface and the objects to be affixed there. Then one by one she took up the wires and pressed them into place, pausing to bend them that last little bit, making a wave pattern, working gingerly with bare fingertips.
Her lips dried and cracked because she breathed through her mouth, sometimes humming a little (it was so quiet out here). A small area grew under her touch toward completion. She held the metal baking sheet over this patch of the work and tapped with the mallet, evening the tightly packed surface beneath.
Embroidery, she thought, beginning a new section, laying one rusty thread alongside another, this coil here like an appliquéd flower. That was the extent of the thought process that the work allowed her: a single, peaceful, summary word — embroidery.
When the air grew cool and the light began to fail, she stopped using the mallet and the baking sheet. She allowed the barbs to stick out more and packed them more tightly together in burr-like clusters. Let the work project a little, a ragged and dangerous cropping-out like a growth of angry moss, the kind that would grow here if moss could live without water. This formation would need careful controlling so that it would not become too prominent and so too fragile.
She stepped back at last, rubbing together her sticky, rust-stained hands wound with ragged tape like boxers’ bloody fists.
On the wide, rugged shoulder of rock her handiwork winked and shone. The black rock itself, of which much was still uncovered, was volcanic, pitted and gnarled. Its edges could cut an ungloved hand. Over the two years and more since the work had begun, she had learned to be slow and wary with this surface, and she hardly used her cowhide gloves any more.
Ribbons of color and brightness, made of fragments she had fixed there in epoxy, ran like geologic strata along the rock face, sometimes touching, even fusing with each other: glazed pottery shards, white quartz, pink granite pebbles, bronze fragments green with weathering, bright bits of steel, rusted iron, satin aluminum, thick blades of colored glass — mixed or homogenous, flat or rough, the layers floated like solid clouds on a black and rugged sky.
She had begun with old things, odd bits of metal and glass preserved by the dry climate, cast-offs from cars and homes, which she had collected idly and without any particular purpose on her long walks through the town of Taos and its environs. She had laid these finds out on a board in the back yard of her first Taos home, for the sheer pleasure of looking at the shapes and colors.
Later she had moved here to the outskirts of the town and scavenged her own acres, still on impulse, without further purpose. And then walking one day in an unaccustomed direction, toward the lower ground instead of the higher to which she was habitually drawn, she had come upon this shield of anomalous rock, the wrong kind of stone for this area. She had seen it as a surface on which she would write her reply to the ancient Indian petroglyphs facing it on another rocky bluff across the arroyo.
No, not a reply exactly — she ran her hands over the strata, checking the soundness of the settings. A continuation, an amplified call forward that in its way would contain and expand the message of the petroglyphs.
Wind and water kept the face of the stone scoured of soil and the prying roots of plants. Still, in time her work would fall apart. In lots of time. She had no trouble with thoughts of its dissolution, so long as the completed work might stand a while, rising silently bejeweled from the sandy soil.
She had built a rough, sturdy scaffold on wheels (with some help from a handy but incurious young man from a commune in the mountains) and trucked it out here to use at the cliff. Working on one of the scaffold’s two platforms, she could only see one small, close section of the wall at a time. She could not climb down every five minutes and trot away to look and then climb up again, not at her age. In the selective blindness forced by the use of the scaffold she found the work to be like weaving, and she liked it that way.
Suddenly, while she stood looking at it, the face of the wall seemed to fly apart. It became nothing but fragments, a lot of meaningless junk. In a panic, she saw the need for something big and bold to hold all the little pieces together or it would just lie there, a slack stretch of bad weaving: not art, but craft at its lowest level, a shapeless assemblage of a lot of parts into a lot of parts, period.
The horror of it was that there was no longer any room for some kind of great, unifying slash or meandering diagonal, not unless she applied something over what was already there. That kind of layering would add a new dimension, a whole new set of considerations — she couldn’t face the thought of it.
She began mechanically to clean up, and as she packed her tools and materials, her panic subsided. She ate one of the apples she’d brought, taking her time, thinking about getting hold of more wire, ignoring the faint taste of solvent that rubbed from her skin onto the apple’s. She felt better, but exhausted.
These momentary failures of nerve and of vision came sometimes. They were nothing compared with the lasting and growing melancholy brought by the knowledge that soon, very soon, the work would be done.
Ricky drove slowly and carefully north toward Albuquerque. In his head ran the refrain of an old song: “Oh, where are you going, said Milder to Malder, oh we may not tell you, said Fickle to Foes.”
He didn’t sing out loud any more (and no loss to the world in that). Breath cost him too much to waste.
“We’re going a-hunting, said John the Red Nose, we’re going a-hunting, said John, the Red Nose.”
We are not going a-hunting, he thought, we are going a-hunted, really, and no matter where or how we go, we are driven in the end to the same earth. Ashes to ashes, and God knows these plains look ashen enough — bare-bone country. Every continent has its flat barrens, a momento mori. Appropriate surroundings for him now, he felt. Some comfort came through from this coarse
, pale land where the sun sucked away everything but bleached pinks and browns and dusty, self-effacing greens. All the color hung in a sky as keenly blue as only inland sky could be, far from any thought of that other great blue expanse, the sea. The spareness of the scene suited his mood, dwarfing his preoccupation to barely significant proportions.
Well, doing that on and off, at any rate. Nothing could quite displace the fact that he was dying. That did tend to obtrude. A moribund man crossing a landscape that itself looked more dead than alive: fitting. Yet the landscape was not dead at all, teemed with hidden life (he knew deserts well); just as his body did and would continue to do, in altered form of course, up to and after his death. Only consciousness makes the difference, he thought. But what a difference.
How, he wondered, did his old friend Dorothea Howard fit into this bony country? And where is she going, says Milder to Malder… We are all going to the same destination, old boy, soon or late: bare bone and beetle. So let’s stick to the limited speculation of the moment: where, at this instant, are we going?
Bump — dead rabbit in the road. He opened his hands and moved them to fresh places on the steering wheel of the rented car.
Specifically, we are heading for Dorothea. A very sharp image of her came — that bright, thoughtful, narrow face, quietly expressing some kind of power.
What power? He wasn’t just — well, curious? No. Had been attracted to her from their first meeting, and she had been warm with him, too. But they had always been out of phase somehow (her marriage, and after that Ricky had been involved with someone, and then he was in Nepal, and then she’d come out here, and Ricky hadn’t traveled recently through inland North America).