The Woman, the Elm, Contrition, & Knowledge


The Woman, the Elm, Contrition, and Knowledge cover

A novella and other stories by Rosemary Gerard. ISBN: 978-0-9824848-1-4. Trade paperback, 212 pages. Publication: April 2010. Can be ordered from Reck House Press for $14.95: use the "Add to Cart" button below to be brought to a secure site for ordering. A Reader's Guide is available for this title.

About The Woman, the Elm, Contrition, & Knowledge

Rosemary Gerard examines the truths and the snaring delusions that drive and misguide relationships. Her characters mourn and tease, delude themselves, surprise themselves. We see them at play with words, with possibilities; we see them pushed against or through their limitations, challenged to grow beyond their expectations.  

Sometimes poignant, sometimes whimsical, and sharply astute on every page, this collection showcases Rosemary Gerard's layered style and imaginative scope.

From A Pact, a Bond, Almost a Vow:

I could say, You remember me, Mrs. Creed. Twenty, twenty-two years ago you gave your daughter an envelope, a sealed white envelope, with yourself as addressee, and dispatched us to the butcher with it, confiding that it contained nearly two hundred dollars, and we went alertly through the treacherous Brooklyn streets and defensively preplanned the skirmish that surely awaited us in the darkness under the elevated trestle, but escaped the trap by walking, a last-minute inspiration, arms linked, on the double lines in the middle of the avenue, and when we arrived at the butcher’s he opened the envelope roughly, tearing it down one side despite our cautions, Oh! Be careful, there’s nearly two hundred dollars in there! But there wasn’t, only a piece of yellow paper, and he nodded and said, Okay, tell your mother we’re square, and we wondered all the way back whether it was our valor or our honesty that had been tested, and how soon and how important our next mission would be.

From The Fourth Time Fred-Dear Left for Louisiana:

The fourth time Fred-Dear left for Louisiana I was nearly fourteen and a businesswoman. I had cartons of preprinted letters and color brochures and prepaid envelopes, and a county telephone directory. I wrote, my own inspiration, a postscript at the bottom of each letter, much as I imagined any gracious English teacher would: “This is an incredible, marvelous opportunity for you to create pride in your family! Do let us send you the information painstakenly extorted from long-hid-from-view but wholey reputable and wholesome historical sources about your illustrous family name! Please do mail the enclosed, pre-paid postcard today! It will cost you but little to discover the history of your infamous family name!” My letters had a higher-than-usual response rate and the company periodically sent me a congratulatory letter. I could see myself, in a few years, with a nice office in the capital, surrounded by directories from all over the country and the world, and employing most of my family.

From The Dry Tide-Master:

We must make some decisions, he had said. Not now, she answered. I can't make that kind of decision now, you know I can't. But he – or his assistantship – could, and did: northern, northern, he took their money and taught their courses and that first year, as he sat in the topless cubicle they called his office, wondered if she was the reason he never unpacked.

He studied the northern fall with its defiant brilliance, and thought of her with her students – Bonjour Monsieur, Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Mademoiselle – and studied the northern snow, feet deep and glazed with ice that sounded like shattering sheetglass when he walked on it, and thought of her – What is the French word for snow? Danielle, the French word for snow? – and when the Blossoms came she was not the only one, and Harvest and Fruit, there was someone not her and she not Emily, and just as her image began to lose its matter, her letters began again.

From The Woman, the Elm, Contrition, and Knowledge:

Liz unquestioningly accepted Marguerite's opinions as truer, more penetrating, than the things she had been taught: amber lights through the foggy confusion of personal relations. She thought of Cora, ramming her authority against anything it encountered, wondered when she had changed from idolizing Cora to despising her, and decided that it was definitely before Marguerite. When Cora reproached Liz with Marguerite, saying, “She dotes on me,” Liz did in her mind continue the sentence as Cora would have wished, “as you used to”; when Cora played Marguerite like a puppet, ordering her exits and entrances and almost dictating her dialogue, by then the feeling between Cora and herself, this nervous animosity, had been vigorously alive.

Yet she did not doubt that her own daily relationships with Cora were easier than Marguerite's. They had so little in common now, she and Cora, and maybe they had never had anything in common at all: maybe their earlier relationship was only the impress of Cora’s interests on the undefined Betsy. It did seem that way, now.

They had been close, once, when Betsy did the Stations of the Cross for her in watercolors, and wrote endless essays and stories, situations for the triumph of the cardinal virtues, and read to Cora the fictionalized lives of saints.

“Ah,” Cora would inevitably sigh at the end of each chapter, “such literature is truly edifying – don't you feel it, too?” And once or twice, as female saints tumbled to horrible deaths by fire or mutilation, with the name of God on their lips, or a frail hymn sung against the roaring, beating wings of pagan barbarism, she did.

*

She wanted details. She wanted to reclaim what had almost been lost: the wallpaper print of her grandfather's parlor, her mother's hands and voice, whether it was a gold watch or silver that her father carried in his coat and sometimes held to her ear. Was it true or apocryphal that her father had pressed her to his chest to hear his heart beat? She could hear her father's words in her grandfather's voice, “Inside the body is a watch that ticks too. It can't be wound though. Only wounded. Sometimes it's wounded by a shock, and it stops suddenly. But mostly it's wounded by time leaning on it, getting heavier and heavier, till the bent old man gets crushed right into the ground.”

So essential a thing, what it was to be held by her father, why could she not remember it? She wanted to go back in her mind to everywhere she had ever been, so that she could see how far she had come, and how straight.

She had no parents, really, to remember; their watches were both wounded by a sudden shock, and time snatched them away before memory had any real grip. She could recall nothing about her father except that there was a clipper ship engraved on his watch. Of her mother she had little more: some needlework, the image, from a photograph on her grandfather's mantel, of a wispy woman who hid her hands and looked out with confusion and shyness. Liz could remember her grandfather clearly, a bent old man so uncomfortable with the child thrust on him that he called her "young lady" and never anything more, and sent her off to the sisters as soon as he could.

His house she could reconstruct vividly, with its low ceilings and dark wood, its cellar of damp stillness, its furniture ponderous and, after she had been there for a while, polished. She could remember the cows, the cats, the chickens, the dog that spurned her friendship, the horse, the dust and must smell of her mother's childhood bed with its browned brass.  Liz remembered how at first she could not sleep in that bed, and how she told her grandfather that it smelled, and how they had gone into the garden and how her grandfather hung his garden onions, slit, on the head- and foot-boards, and then how, for many days in succession, the mattress was dragged out into the sunshine, where the chickens and roosters laughed at it, incongruously settled in the summer dust.

Her dresses Liz remembered as seldom brightly fresh, but her shoes, after her grandfather pointed out where her mother had cleaned her boots, were polished from the same can as the furniture and her grandfather's gun stock.

Once the cows got into the chokecherries, and the raw milk had a delicate pinkish tint as it was poured out, and a bite on the tongue.

On her first morning there she had hesitated over the hot cup even after her grandfather had poured sweet milk into it, cooling it. “Well?” he demanded. “Drink down your coffee, young lady. Chores.”

“It tastes” – but she had no word for the disagreeable sensation. She thought, bad, but hesitated with it, one evening new to this man and his ways, but he had dropped an irregular lump of sugar into her cup, having taken the covered sugar bowl from the corner pantry, rapping it against his flattened palm as he brought it to the table. The single lump, unstirred, did not perceptibly alter the taste. When she noticed him looking away, she slipped a second lump into her cup, trying to avoid her grandfather's noisy splash. A third lump brought the liquid level to overflow, but at least she could sip the sweetening liquid, all the way down to the slow-sliding granules that inched up from the bottom of the tipped cup.

The house held ladles and crocks and wood piled by the stove, brass and tin and sometimes, out of place and out of time, a vase of colored glass, dainty only by comparison to the objects of heavy utility, holding shag weeds.

She wondered now, often, about that house – not about her grandfather, he was a good man, with her prayers he was surely in heaven – whether anyone, after he was called back, had entered that house. She knew only this, they had told her only that he had died swiftly and without pain, and was a rose in God's garden – but who had gone into that house, who had gone into the chests and corners and cupboards, had anyone? Or did the jam still sit opened on the table – a very meticulous man, he would not have liked that – did the old hound still circle the kitchen once to lie in front of the wood near the stove? No, the hound must be dead, too; but did it still walk through the house, feel it emptied of life and bluster and righteousness, did it scent dust and mold, tarnished silver and rotted wood?

*

The Motherhouse was home now, and so Betsy learned to crochet, and Cora introduced her to Sister Laundry, and she spent long mornings brushing the habits that Sister Laundry would iron, and later, older, able to reach the basin without straining, she immersed pile after pile of habit parts in bleach, while Sister Laundry fretted her with instructions.

Sister Cook was easier to work with. All friendly grease spots and flour puffs, she often let Betsy bake cookies shaped like animals, or, if the season dictated, Christmas trees and Santas, Easter bunnies and eggs, and she was especially understanding one Christmas when Betsy hit on the idea of making for Cora cookies depicting the Nativity scene. Even now Liz could recall Cora nibbling one of the legs of the manger, her forehead furrowed in thoughtful concentration, pretending, Liz supposed now, to be critically unbiased as she debated before Betsy whether these were or were not the very best Christmas cookies shaped into the Nativity scene that she had ever tasted. Cora had consumed the manger, a cow, a horse, two snakes, a rooster, and two of the Magi before she could bring in the happiest of decisions.

Included in the collection are:

Reader responses to The Woman, the Elm, Contrition & Knowledge:

In her short stories, Rosemary Gerard’s characters range from quirky to poignant, and the tales are funny and heartbreaking. The novella is most compelling of all. Liz is, by turns, passive, stilted, passionate, obsessive, unstable, and accepting. Yet Gerard gives Liz a steady voice throughout, and Liz’s thoughts and memories are beautifully rendered. - L. S., Bath, ME

Gerard is one lively, wacky writer! J. S. from Minneapolis is right on with his/her music analogy: This book has everything from a hoedown to a slow waltz. - J. P., Eugene, OR

The short stories are wonderful, and some of them are a lot of fun, but what I liked best is the novella. Poor Liz is so deluded and at the same time so understandable. I love the way she shows us the motherhouse – I was walking around with her and seeing what she saw. The ending is like a piece of music. – J. S., Minneapolis, MN

This writing is amazing! It captures a timeless quality, so dreamy, sad and wonderful. I'm totally impressed. I love the dying saints, and the wounded ticker. It's incredible what worlds you hold inside. Just when I lose faith in the world, I read this! It's so nice not to be alone in the world - that's what your writing does for me - it reassures me that quality is still out there and that at least someone has not sold out. - M. B., Bath, ME


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