EDITOR’S NOTE by Diane Williams
“The Duchess of Albany” is a favorite of mine and I made sure to lay NOON’s hands on it. Subsequently, the story was also anthologized in the prestigious PEN/ O.Henry Prize Stories for 2007.
Any reader unfamiliar with Christine Schutt’s work should prepare for an unprecedented event. This is courageous fiction.
What is it that you fear most? — or that you dare not contemplate? Schutt’s virtuoso literary art can change the most challenging facts of life into music that one will want to live by.
The duchess in this story is an older woman in extremis. She is in mourning for her beloved husband, whose garden, in all its patterns and colorations, has sustained them both. Now his remark about gardens dying with their gardeners rouses her to keep the garden alive and so keep some part of him alive. She is a noble woman in her efforts — a flower in the garden.
However, “[T]he garden was not genteel. The garden was full of thugs…The ‘Duchess of Albany’ was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a Clematis with deep pink upside down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells.”
But when the season is over, what will become of her? What will become of us? And, how can timorous bells be so vivid and so insistently raucous?
Schutt’s work has been widely and enthusiastically praised and accorded distinguished prizes. Critics have appropriately compared her to such canonical luminaries as Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty — Wilder, Chekhov, and O’Neill.
Notably, her much heralded peers are also full of applause. For example Gary Lutz asserts: “It is no longer a secret that Christine Schutt is the finest writer among us…There isn’t a corner in any of her sentences left ungraced by her lyrical genius, her heart-fathoming wisdom.” Sam Lipsyte calls her writing a “masterful, a comic-tragic astonishment…some of the most original and rewarding prose I’ve ever read.“
The elegiac “Duchess of Albany” is a finely made song with garden virtues: range, wit, pattern, surprise.
The Duchess of Albany
“THE GARDEN DIES WITH THE GARDENER” was what Owen had said, but when, years later, he died, she faced the garden with a will to keep it alive — as who would not? But the twins urged her to sell. They thought it would be wise to move out of the house (for too long too large) and into Wax Hill with its assisted-care conveniences and attached hospital: Wax Hill that short line to the furnace and the thoroughfare.
She had carried Owen’s chalky bones in a bag. She had tossed him into every part of the garden. How could she sell the house when from every window in the house — and there were lots of windows — she could see some part of him, Owen, her well-named spirit with meaty gardener’s hands and other contradictions. He liked the slow and melancholy; he listened to St. Matthew’s Passion long after Easter. But God? He didn’t believe. Young once, he saw himself alone when he was old with just a daughter. He left behind two, not of his own making but full of reverence for him, nonetheless.
He was a schoolteacher, and the luggage-colored oak leaves signaled his season, but it had come around so fast. He had had nuns for cousins — nuns! Sisters of Charity, how queer they seemed now; their menace, vanished. Mustachioed Agnes Gertrude and arthritic Mary Agnes, they had taught at the Mount for forty-odd years, wimpled and sudden, full of authority. She said, “I haven’t seen a nun in such a long, long time.”
The twins, on conference call, were hard to tell apart except when they laughed.
She didn’t have a lot to say and lapsed into what the weather was doing. Today snow, the second snowstorm of the New Year — and Owen once in it. She could see him, lopsided, downy, a scarf around his head. Blizzardy weather was wonderful to walk in.
“Oh, Mother,” from the twins when she cried. Overly dramatic, yes, she knew she was being, but she missed him. The wide road he had offered her each morning, saying, “What’s on your agenda?” Now the wide road had all the charm of a freeway.
“But take a walk,” the twins said, “if it’s snowing.”
Inward would be a nice word for what she was, self-absorbed would be more accurate.
“I know the country is at war,” she said; nevertheless, she missed him. “Besides, when I look at the larger world, I cry almost as much.”
But there was Owen, his voice, the sound of him in another room, off-key hummer, cracking nuts over the paper, singing or whistling a patter song. A Gilbert and Sullivan tune twiddled for days: “The lady novelist…I’m sure she’d not be missed.” Whatever he thought to play or heard was his favorite. “I’ve got a little list…I’m sure she’d not be missed.”
Some nights now she plunged into working, but vodka some mornings was preferred. She had to admit it — to herself but not to the twins.
She told them, “I have started a sestina.” She said she was inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” and she was using two of the same words. “The line, Time to plant tears, was what moved me.”
“Sestinas are difficult’” the twins said. Her educated daughters, they knew, they had tried.
“In high school, Mother. Remember Miss Byrd?”
“Oh, Miss Byrd!” and they had a rare good laugh, the three of them, she and the twins, remembering the ethereal Miss Byrd, giddy and overworked and walking into walls. The twins laughed about Miss Byrd getting lost in the mall on the Boston trip. The twins were laughing, and she was laughing a little, too, when the sight of the old dog asleep alarmed her. And on a sudden, in the whiplash moodiness of youth, she was mad at Owen. Damn him.
“There’s no pleasure to be had in discipline and restraint,” she said to the twins. “That’s what a fucking sestina is all about,” and so the pleasure of laughing was over.
“Why, Mother?” One voice.
The other said, “You’ve been drinking.”
She said, “I don’t have to defend myself.” Besides, she explained, the drinking was only a problem if she drove, “and I don’t.” She stayed at the table or slept in the big chair and no one need worry. She might die there — no mess.
“All I am saying is you can’t have much of an accident if you sit somewhere with a drink.”
“You have to get up for the bottle.” Only Clarissa would say.
Here was the difference between her girls: one was meaner than the other.
“I bring the bottle to the table.”
“Great, Mother. That’s just great. Now do you see why we don’t want to call?”
“Then don’t. Leave me alone.” And she hung up the phone and almost kicked at the dog, but she refrained. The dog was her friend. Pink. “Poor, old Pink,” she said, “you scared the shit out of me,” and she leaned out to pat a shapeless pile of fuzz and spoke nonsense to it, Owen’s dog, Pink, adopted, a miniature mix of something abandoned and abused. Pink was hairless at the start.“ Look at you now, you little dust cloth, baby Pink, old sweetie. I wouldn’t hurt you. You’re my pal.”
“I’m on the move today,” she said to Pink, but the dog lay unperturbed, sure she would come back.
A snowstorm, a thaw, a brilliant sun, snow, freezing temperatures, snow, then better, warmer, promising weather arrived, and she looked back at Pink and then to the rake and the garden where the wet, mahogany islands of leaves, submerged for months in snow, now floated. All the snow pelted away by a rain the night before and only a mist this morning, something more than fog. She liked to work in it. She thought of Owen’s hair — water-beaded and in the sun brightly netted. She raked and thought if the twins could see. If they could live with the garden the way she did. Covered or uncovered, leafed or bare, the garden was restorative in any season. The persistent mist was turning into rain. March, late March. Somebody’s birthday — whose?
She abandoned Pink to the mud. She raked the beds; she swept the pavers. “Dirty girl!” she said when the dog wobbled toward her. Why had she even taken the poor mutt out? The dog trembled and squeaked.
The six words in her sestina are garden, widow, husband, dog, almanac, tears. “The envoy is an oncoming train.” She said, “Restrain the wild element of mourning and what you get is sentimentality.”
The twins, she should listen to them, sell, move, secure what there was to secure for them. Poor girls, in the disarray of single life, the yap, yap, yap of the dryer at the Laundromat beating up their tired clothes. Few single men where they lived, and the best of them gay.
The rain was cold, but she let herself get wet the way Owen did until she was soaked.
In the kitchen again she lit up the stove and watched the rain wash the garden into its outline. Green spikes stippled the beds she had raked, and the cropped crowns of established plants, the wheat-colored stalks of hydrangea, poked out polished in a design of circles mostly.
If her daughters could only see.
How is it possible that in caring for the garden she could miss summer? How is it possible, but she did.
Up at four and again at five, and at five-thirty up for good. Pink was awake; she heard him tick against the bare floor, circling the bed; she heard him yawn. “Good morning,” she said, and she went on talking to Pink as she carried the dog down the stairs and to the paper. “Because it’s too cold outside, isn’t it, Pinkie? I’m not going to do what I did yesterday. Too cold and wet this morning.” She saw forty-five on the thermometer. The radio said it was colder. Too cold. She got water, aspirin, more water. She put on deodorant, then went back to bed. For how long? Who cared? She was up again besides. She washed her hair and dried it in the heat of the open oven.
Once she had thought it would be hard to let go of life, but it will not be so hard.
She read; she wrote; she must have had lunch but she could not remember. The scenes that blew past came out in bands of color. The wispy complication of bare branches was added magic; the shadows were dark and sure. She put Owen in her poem, Owen or the shape of him, on the deck in his coat and pom-pomed hat, a passenger on a steamer, a blanket over his legs, heavy sweater, scarf — the pom-pomed hat. The garden beyond him she turned into straw.
Why did she lie to the twins? Why, when they called, did she say, “I am not drinking. I am working.” Why didn’t she tell them, “I’m doing both”?
The brief hello of summer and its long, long good-bye. Great piles of death she hauled to the woods to the dead pile. Farewell to the flowers of summer, to plume poppy and Vernonia. Turk’s-cap lilies, delicate as paper lanterns at the height of their glowing, good-bye.
“Anytime you care to look,” Owen said whenever he caught her watching his quick strip at the back door. She liked to look at his secreted machinery from behind when he bent over or stood one-legged getting out of his shorts. There it was, the long, dark purse of him asway. The head of his cock was the color of putty. Its expression was aloof most of the time, a self-satisfied indifference. When he was seated in some other ablution, the head of his cock was rosy and large and also arousing.
All she ever had to do was ask when what she liked to do most was look. Look!
“It’s yours,” he said, and with a flourish held out the bouquet of himself, “be my guest.”
Overnight, age seemed to happen to him, then a few years of ifs, poorer health, and medication.
“Don’t talk of moving just yet, please,” she told the twins. “Not tonight.”
Why, except for loneliness, did she answer the phone? (Owen at the long table, saying to the ringing phone, “Go away people. Leave us alone,” and people pretty much did.) To get off the phone she used the excuse of Pink somewhere sick. The odd thing was when she did hang up, she found Pink in the closet sick.
“Poor baby,” she said.
“Old age,” said the vet.
He gave Pink pills that worked to ward off motion sickness, which sometimes happened to old pets, despite their stationary lives. “He will sleep a little bit more.”
“A good night’s sleep,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
They talked a little, she and the old vet, for he, too, was old.
They talked about Owen, or she did, and he asked, “Have you looked for any groups?” On the swizzling drive home in the rain, she cried, and she couldn’t see to drive and had to pull over. “Fucking old vet!” She put her face in her hands and cried. She petted Pink and cooed at him a little, saying, “We won’t go back there again, will we, Pinkie. No, no. But you feel better already, don’t you.” The little dog was a dust ball; just petting him made her feel awful. “Do I have to outlive everybody?”
“Yes, yes, yes, no,” she said. “The lily-of-the-valley is up.” She said, “Yes, it was two years ago today.”
“We wanted you to know, we’re thinking about you,” the twins said, and the girls called again later just to see how she was.
“How are you, Mommy?” they asked in maternal voices.
“The lily-of-the-valley is up,” she said.
May was his birthday month and hers, when she and Owen quietly celebrated with nothing more than mild surprise. He was given to saying, “I think I’m going to see another spring.” And he did — just.
Of course, his heart, what else?
Now the oppressive immovable quality of objects wore her out.
Whatever was not in front of her she meant to remember. His shapely head, his small red ear, his hair.
“You’ve been drinking. We can tell.”
“We knew you would.”
“So why act so surprised?” She hung up the phone and saw the fucking dog peeing on the floor in front of her. Little fucker!
They had not had enough time, she and Owen.
“I’m no such thing,” she said to the twins.
Another night, “I’m tired.”
Another, “I’m old is what it is.”
Owen had said that in the garden she would rediscover childhood, but those childhood experiences she remembered were mostly dreadful. She took her nose out of the flower, and her cousin, seeing her, laughed. “Your nose!” The red was hard to get off as were grass stains on her knees and elbows. Childhood in the garden. The garden was not genteel. The garden was full of thugs, and Owen had shown her some. The “Duchess of Albany” was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a Clematis with deep pink upside down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells. The “Duchess of Albany” was a favorite of hers: how could she sell the house to someone who might kill the Duchess in the earth-moving business of house improvement.
“The men came, yes,” she said to her daughters. But they have such big feet!“ she said. “They can’t help it, I know.”
“Mommy!” the twins said. “We’re only trying to help.”
So was she. Hadn’t she consented to the ugly tub? That ugly tub with the gruff bottom and the grips.
Her children have not visited in years.
“Oh, Mother,” they say, “what are you talking about?”
She took her own safety precautions and moved her bedroom, such as it was, downstairs to the sun porch. On the sun porch on the sofa she was not afraid to fall asleep.
What made Pink nest in corners? “What do you think is the matter?” she asked.
“Pink’s old, Mommy.”
“The dog’s ancient. Take him to the vet’s.”
“Oh, god,“ she said. Going to the old vet’s frightened her as much as it did the dog. “Oh, god,” she said. She felt so bogged down and muddled.
“You’re drunk is what you are.” From the meaner?
“Oh, god,” she said. “I don’t want to find a stiff dog under the desk. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.” She cried and the twins consoled her.
“Mommy, why don’t you crawl into your cream puff and go to sleep for a while?”
“You and the dog have a snooze.”
She said, “I think I will.” She said, “Pink doesn’t realize I have mixed feelings about him.”
She had found him in an odd posture tipped against the shed. The hose was squiggled over half the garden, and elsewhere were two full buckets, a shovel, a rake. How she had wished, for his sake, Owen had put away the tools and coiled the hose and achieved a perfect death, although the twins yelled at her for saying such a thing.
But the morning after he died, the terrible morning after, repeats so many times a day: she woke up, dressed, walked downstairs, made her gritty breakfast drink, and took her tea outside. Then she saw it, the grain bin, where he kept his garden clothes and she fell to her knees and cried. Up to that moment, she had sipped at her tea and believed he was alive and already in the garden and muddy.
The permanence of his absence is a noise she hears when she listens to how quiet. How he did and he did and he did for her.
“Can I be of any help?” Always he asked this, “Do you want anything? Can I get you anything?”
She thought it was summer still if not spring, but the day’s evidence said it was fall. Again!
“When was the last time you were outside, Mommy?”
“I’m taking care of the garden.” She told them her nose was in it, brushing against the staining anthers, freakishly marked, a bald animal, she, a stiff, kinked dog, not unlike the dog she owned. Pink. Pink, what was the matter with that dog? After she got off the phone, she caught him in the act and pulled him away, made him stop, put him out of doors — like that — then wiped up after him. She brought Pink inside and carried Pink to his bed in the kitchen and talked to him. But even as she apologized for the chokehold, a part of her wished him dead and another part feared his dying, and she took Pink upstairs and bathed him in the new tub. His pink skin was so pink he looked scalded. He was thin; he shivered, though she was gentle and the water was warm. She dried him with her own soft towel and when he was dried and happy and at ease, she swaddled and rocked him. He was so pitifully thin. She put him in his cream puff and said, “I’m getting into mine.”
About the Author
Christine Schutt is the author of two collections of stories and three novels, the last of which, Prosperous Friends, was published in 2012. She has been a finalist for both a National Book Award (for the novel Florida) and Pulitzer Prize (for the novel All Souls) as well as a recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts and Guggenheim Foundations. She has twice won an O.Henry Prize for short fiction. Schutt lives and teaches in New York.
About the Guest Editor
Founded in 2000 by Diane Williams — NOON (a literary annual) — is dedicated to supporting important literary art. It has been critically acclaimed both in the U.S. and abroad. Its stories have been reprinted frequently and have won many prizes over the years, including an O.Henry Prize for “The Duchess of Albany” presented here. Two of its stories were selected for the 2014 Pushcart Prize edition. The current NOON was reviewed in The Los Angeles Times this April by David Olin in an article entitled “The Discreet Charm of NOON.” He called it “…a compendium of unlikely pleasures: short prose and illustrations that challenge us to think about meaning and narrative….[I]t is elegantly designed and curated, a journal that wears its intentions on its sleeve. These are oblique stories, stories that exist in the interior, getting at the things we know but do not know we know.”