Jessica Nelson: Unheimlich

Two tiny mouths emerge from a bed of hay and sticks and yellowed leaves, brown beaks chomping on desiccated air.  Black eyes blink frantically.  The new hawks swallow the dust that rises in plumes from a dry nest as they beat their wings and scuttle their webbed feet against a decaying nest.  The mother tucks her chin to her breast and nibbles at an insect burrowing into a claggy cavern of feathers.  A shudder.  She lifts her head to the sky.  A cloud stutters in front of the midday sun and there is a second of shadow and chill and the yellow electric tinge of danger.  She is completely still.

A great wind moves suddenly and the big hawk shudders and heaves, her long neck expanding and contracting, her birdboned shoulders pressing tightly against a muscular neck.  Her head moves in rapid, twitching circles.  Stiffened wings beat quickly against her swollen flank and the two young caw out wildly in anticipation of food, careening forward and over one another, mouths ajar.  With one final downward thrust, the hawk inserts her curved beak into a waiting mouth and deposits a churned, milky stream of sustenance.  The little bird chokes and spits breakfast to the ground.


My mother, Susan, sifts through an oversized pocketbook.  She digs past a fat wallet stuffed with credit cards, a smattering of wrinkled business cards (her own and others), chapsticks and lighters and loose tobacco and empty pill bottles.  She pulls out the soft green corduroy case that contains her glass pipe and a big bag of good pot.

We sit on Susan’s back patio at dusk; my brother, Eric, Susan, and me.  This is where we land whenever I am in limbo, between moves or jobs or schools – we collect like tumbleweeds into the hollow of the backyard.  We hunker down like weatherworn old men, sated for a moment with warm food and red wine and an old familiarity that settles into the joints.  We tell stories and smoke cigarettes.  The night is August warm and the sky is beginning to darken, heavy on our shoulders like a navy blanket.  I watch my brother take a long pull from his mother’s bowl, prodding expertly at the hot orange leaves with the corner of his red lighter.  His brow is furrowed and as he exhales there is a moment when his face softens and his eyes roll back and he is no longer twenty-one but six, or five, or three, before he has learned the plain facts of death and disease and the self-sabotaging brain.  He reaches to pass me the bowl.

I have just returned from a summer studying in England and traveling in Scotland and so I start to tell them about midnight on the Isle of Skye, an island off the western coast of the Scottish Highlands, which in June means wet fog and violet skies and loud bars that pulsate with the heavy trill of local fiddlers.

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Eric says, “that’s real cool.  I’ve been on a trip too, a real trip.  To the psycho doctor.  And I am now the proud owner of a bipolar diagnosis!”  He pauses to light the bowl.  “The guy said it like I won something.”   Eric lowers his chin, exhales, and clears his throat. “‘And with your family history…Yep, you’ve got it, kid!’”

“Well, we can see how he’s taken to the art of self-medicating,” says Susan.  The three of us shrug and nod and take long sips from stemmed glasses.


In Oxford, I am studying Pre-Raphaelitism and Decadence, which means I am doing a lot of thinking about parlors and flagellation and Japanese kimono prints.  But I am also thinking about the uncanny.  What Freud defines as “that class of frightening that leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”  Unheimlich, in German.  A word that means unfamiliar, not home, but also unconcealed, what is revealed.  A word that moves in circles until it finally coincides with its opposite, heimlich, belonging to the house.  Home.  But it would be incorrect to assume that only the unfamiliar is frightening.  The uncanny is the red swell of recognition, the buried obsession, the glossy vaginal folds, the former heim. Yes, this is terrifying we decide, and off we run, only to return again.

After three months I am travel-weary and punch-drunk on paint, lost in Rossetti’s blues and the pink tongues of Persephone’s pomegranate seeds.  I am leaving Oxford’s museums thinking that the whole world is now in HD satellite picture! like a big joke,  a commercial’s refrain having somehow mixed in my mind with the clarity of those images.  This happens sometimes when I’ve been left to my own devices for a while, roaming foreign countries alone like some empty, vaporous disciple, rootless and hungry.

Between loneliness and exhilaration is a bit of madness, too.  I have a trick up my sleeve.  I am able to convince myself that I am unattached — come from nowhere, headed nowhere — without a home.  Here, I subsist on worship, but my mother’s God never came for me.  Instead of churches and symbols, I kneel to the crooked trees and the yellow ageless finch, the silver and sallow riverbed that winds wanly through an old village, which is ashen and crumbling and useless.  Every strange face is suddenly familiar, as if from long ago, and every train heads in the right direction.

When I call Susan on a payphone she tells me to get my shit together and hangs up.  It’s a good idea, I think, except that in the morning I tripped over my own feet, landing chest first on the stone steps of the Bodleian, my left breast now swollen to twice its normal cup size.  Purple red flesh capsizing over the edges of a black lace bra.  I wonder why I missed out on Susan’s level-headedness, which gene got pinched.

In truth, I tell her, I might be too far gone.

At night we gather in the Trinity College dining hall for a supper of fried fish and chips and something vaguely broccoli-ish, all soaked through in a buttery Hollandaise.  The warm white room pulses like a fever:  hot skin of the eager, the underdressed.  Grim portraits line the walls; under the accusing scowls of long-dead deans and bishops and moneyed benefactors, we sit and twitch and shift.  We pull at thin dresses and discreetly wipe away the sweat beneath our knees.

I eat slowly and leave.  The courtyard is empty and the last light is glowing phosphorescent on the stone walkway.  From another courtyard I can hear the hum of voices, the occasional crescendo of laughter.  A door opens; music escapes and silver clatters on a wooden floor.  As I head toward the bar to join my friends for a pint, I see two baby hawks huddled beneath the archway that leads from Front Quad into Chapel Quad.  I step past them cautiously.  They have the soft pillowy down of the newly born and their small round faces are tucked into gray white tufts which stand on end as if windblown, grasping for heat.  And despite the warm summer air these chicks are shivering, eyes closed, silent.  I look around for a mother and see none.  I find my friend Maggie in the bar and she says not to worry, even if the birds fell from their nest the mother will be along to feed them eventually.  This sounds right to me, but when we return through the archway a few hours later they are still there: swaying, knock-kneed, their breathing shallow.


“Alright, clean up,” says Susan.

“Why do you always do that?” I say.

“Do what?”

“Order us to clean up dinner like we’re still kids.”  Eric begins to gather plates.  “As if we’re not going to do it, anyway.  Besides, its Eric’s turn.  I did it last time.”

But she is older now.  We all are.  I notice her slower gait, the slight hesitation when she rises from a chair, the unsteady first steps.  The constant Marlboro is burning, burning, like an extra appendage.

Someday, provisions will need to be made.  There will be doctors and fluorescent lights, oxygen tanks and fruitless battles with far-away insurance agents.  There will be coughing, coughing, coughing.  And pureed dinners and constant shuffling: bathroom, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room, bathroom, buckets and tubes and bad jokes.  There will be Eric and Susan and me.  Eric and Susan and me.  And we are already so tired.

“Go get Mommy another glass of wine,” she orders.  This is the point Eric and I know so well, the time of evening we have come to dread.  She will begin to slur and stroke our heads too lovingly.  She will ride a conversation to unintended heights and then watch the thoughts tumble over an unforeseen precipice, bewildered.

We bring the bottle.  We have learned to just bring the bottle.

And so we all settle back in our chairs.  We watch the dogs wander through the yard, the grey one clawing new holes in the ground, the yellow retriever stamping at fireflies and then bellowing into the night.

“Okay, Jess, tell another ‘ye old weary world traveler’ story,” says Eric.  It is true that neither Eric nor Susan has left the states.

“Oh no, forget it,” I say, exhausted.

“No, really,” he says, filling my glass with wine.

“Please,” says Susan.  Her words are thick now, eyes red and dangerous.

I want to tell them a lovely little story about green and undulating landscapes, about skies soft as cotton and faces old as dirt.

I want to say, “We’ll go, let’s go.”

I want to tell them about Vernon Lee and Freud and the uncanny, about sheep and whiskey and Scottish folk songs.  Could I explain that to return home is not a return from the uncanny, but a return to it?  The very site, the very marrow?  Who would I be if I said that I don’t belong here, don’t belong anywhere?


But what could I possibly say of churches?

Instead, I tell them this:

For three days, we kept a steady vigil over the baby hawks.  I have never witnessed a death so slow.  I was there when it finally happened.  The two birds, covered in flies, finally stumbled apart and moved toward opposite corners of the courtyard.  Their progress was hindered because they could not see, their eyelids closed and swarmed by the flies.  Every so often one would lose its balance and collapse sideways onto the stone, or else reel forward and back like a drunk, clumps of feathers scattering in its wake, liked tattered shiftless cerements.  I did not smash their heads with rocks.  I did not slice their throats with a kitchen knife.  I only watched as they floundered to the rose beds and clawed beneath the brush, biding time in separate charnels, a wonder to the worms.


Tags: , , ,