"The Limit" by Christian Wiman

“I don’t understand anything…and I no longer want to understand anything. I want to stick to the fact…If I wanted to understand something, I would immediately have to betray the fact, but I’ve made up my mind to stick to the fact.”
—Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

I

I was fifteen when my best friend John shot his father in the face. It was an accident, I’m certain, and but for the fact that I’d dropped a couple of shotgun shells as I was fumbling to reload, the shot could have been mine. I sometimes wonder what difference that might have made.

We were dove-hunting, catching them as they cleared the edge of the small tank on John’s family’s property outside of town. Surrounding the tank was a slight rise of brush before the fields, and John’s father, a country doctor who shared a small practice with my father, had wandered off through the brush behind us to check the fenceline. I was close to my limit that afternoon, which I’d never gotten, wearing one of those hunting vests with pockets big enough to hold a dozen or so birds. I remember the full feel of it, reaching in every so often to touch the little feathery lumps as they cooled. It was nearly dusk, my favorite time in west Texas, the light like steeping tea, shadows sliding out of things.

I’d been hunting for a couple of years. It seems odd to me now that I was allowed to have a gun, as my family’s history was not a placid one, and I myself was prone to sudden destructive angers and what my grandmother would call “the sulls.” I have more than one vivid memory of being in my bedroom as one of these angers subsides, books and clothes scattered on the floor, a chair and dresser overturned. I take the shotgun from under my bed and pump a shell into the chamber—roughly, so everyone in the house is sure to hear. No one comes. No one ever comes. I set the stock on the floor, lean my chin on the top of the barrel, stretch my arm down toward the trigger I can’t quite touch, and wonder if this is something I’ll grow into.

Theatrics, that gun aimed at my parents more than myself, with a kind of calculated malice that, twenty years later, makes me wince. My mother was terrified of guns. That my brother and I weren’t allowed to have toy guns as we were growing up, yet both got shotguns as gifts in our early teens, is ironic, I suppose, though in that flat world of work and blunt fundamentalism in which I was raised, where in grade school county history lessons I learned the virtues of a man who’d slaughtered three of the seven white buffaloes known to exist, where one branch of my family had spent their happiest years in a town called Dunn, it has only a sad sort of retroactive irony.

My mother’s hatred of guns was something more than the expression of a delicate feminine sensibility. Her own mother had been murdered in front of her and her two brothers when she was fourteen. The killer was her father, about whom I know only that he was compulsively itinerant, almost certainly manic-depressive, and for the month or so prior to the act had been living apart from his family. He walked in the back door one evening and killed his wife as she was cooking dinner, waited while his children ran out into the fields, then laid down beside her in some simulacrum of spent desire and shot himself in the head.

This was just a story to me, less than that, really, since it wasn’t so much told as breathed, a sort of steady pressure in the air. I don’t remember it ever being mentioned, and yet I also don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about it. It had more reality for me than the night in my infancy when my father, who was also given to the sulls, went into his room and didn’t come out for several months, for I have no memory of this and didn’t learn of it until after I’d left home; but less reality than the aunt, Opal, who’d committed suicide before I was born. Supposedly, the whole extended family had conspired for a time to create their own private climate of calm, eradicating all hints of darkness from their lives like a country rigidly purging its past, steering conversations toward church and children, hiding the knives. It was hunting, as one might imagine, that proved most difficult in this regard, though Opal’s husband was very careful to make sure their two sons kept their guns “hidden” under the beds, the shells all locked up in a little chest to which he had the only key. It seems not to have occurred to anyone that they might simply stop hunting and get rid of their guns. It was Texas. They were boys.

My family was so quiet about these matters that I thought they were something we were supposed to be embarrassed about. I learned early and no doubt too well that only certain kinds of violence were acceptable, both as topics of conversation and as actions. I loved the story of the uncle who, frustrated by a particularly recalcitrant cow, slammed his fist into its skull so hard that the cow dropped immediately to its knees like some ruined supplicant. I loved my immense, onomatopoetic uncles, Harley and Burley, who’d storm into town after months on offshore oil rigs, the nimbus of gentleness around each of them made more vivid and strange by their scars and hard talk, the wads of cash they pulled from their pockets like plunder.

And though I was mildly, reflexively disciplined by my father after the one truly serious fight I had growing up, when I was consumed with an anger that still unnerves me and continued to beat a cowboy I’ll call Tom even after I’d broken bones in my hand and every blow was doing me a lot more damage than it was doing him, I was alert to the tacit masculine pride. Even the principal who meted out our corporal punishment for fighting on school grounds whipped our backsides with a kind of jocular aggressiveness that amounted to approval.

But anything that suggested madness rather than control, illness rather than health, feminine interiority rather than masculine action, was off-limits. Or perhaps not so much off-limits as simply outside of the realm of experience for which we had words, for I don’t remember resisting discussing these things, really, or having them deflected by adults. Later, when I would begin to meet other young writers who, like myself, generally had more imagination than available experience, the events of my family’s history would acquire a kind of show-and-tell exoticism, little trinkets of authenticity brought back from the real world. That it wasn’t a real world, not yet, that it had no more reality for me than what I read in books, didn’t seem to matter too much at the time.

Now it does. At some point I stopped talking about my family’s past and began reinventing it, occasionally in what I wrote, but mostly just for myself, accumulating facts like little stones which I would smooth and polish with the waters of imagination. I chose them very carefully, I realize now, nothing so big that it might dam up the flow, nothing too ugly and jagged to be worn down into the form I had in mind. Psychoanalysis is “creating a story that you can live with,” I have been told, and perhaps that’s what I was doing, though in truth I think I wanted less a story I could live with than one I could live without, less a past to inhabit than some recreated place I could walk finally, definitively away from.

The bullet hole between my grandmother’s shoulder blades, then, and the way she crumples faster than a heartshot deer. I can see my grandfather stepping away from the door, can see the look in his eyes, which, I know, is meant to assure his children as they back slowly out of the room that he is as baffled and saddened by this as they are, that they needn’t be afraid, that he would never, never hurt them. He walks heavily across the room, steps over his wife, and, in some last gasp of that hopeless hardscrabble sanity his children will inherit and pass on, turns off the stove so the dinner won’t burn, then lies down beside her on the floor.

I can see my Aunt Opal, too, gathering the laundry, humming something, deciding at the last minute to wash the coats. She is not beautiful but there is something of the landscape’s stark simplicity about her face, a sense of pure horizon, as if what you saw were merely the limit of your own vision, not the end of what is there. As she shakes out her husband’s coat, a single forgotten shotgun shell falls out of the pocket onto the floor. I can see the dull copper where the light dies, the little puckered end of the red casing. Oh, Honey, she says as she picks it up, bemusement changing to concern on her face, concern to pain, it’s not your fault. It’s no one’s fault.

Lately, though, more and more, it’s John I see, standing stolid and almost actual in his boots and hunting vest, lifting his shotgun to his shoulder and laughing as I fumble to load mine. He is physically very similar to me but at ease in his body in a way I’ll never be. He does not yet inhabit that continuous present that precludes remorse, but already he is all impulse and action, whereas I am increasingly deliberate, increasingly interior. There is some inner, inarticulate anger we share, though, and recognize in each other. When John’s begins to slip out of control, the results for the people around him will be immediate, palpable, and utterly disastrous. My own implosion will be no more noticeable to the people around me than something I’ve imagined.

The gun that goes off in my ear now is a fact. It is muted by all the intervening years, by all that has happened, both internally and externally. Still, the authority of its report surprises me, as does the strangely muffled shout that seems to occur at almost exactly the same time, as if the dove, which once again John has not missed, which as I look up is plunging downward, had a human cry.

II

I don’t want to kill myself. I never have, though for a time not too long ago the act emerged in me like an instinct, abstractly at first, and with a sort of voluptuous, essentially literary pleasure. (Nietzche: “The thought of suicide is a powerful solace; it enables a man to get through many a bad night.”) Gradually the thought became more painful as it became more concrete, more dangerous as it became more familiar, more alienating as it became more my own. I thought of it as a kind of cancer in my mind, because eventually no matter what I was doing—teaching a class, sitting at a dinner party, trying to write, waking every hour of every night to check the clock—that was what I was doing, attending to that slowly clarifying imperative that beat itself out inside me as steadily and ineluctably as my own pulse.

I told no one. I couldn’t. On the couple of occasions when I’d made up my mind that I would tell friends what was happening, my heart began to race, I had difficulty breathing, and I simply had no language for what I needed to say. Also, even during the worst of it, I always doubted the validity of the feeling, suspected that, like the impersonal stories I used to tell about my distant familial history, it might just be a bit of disingenuous self-dramatization. De-spite the fact that I’ve had relatives on both sides of my family commit suicide, despite my knowledge that my father has resisted the impulse all his life, and my sister has twice attempted the act, I suspected I might be faking, using the thought of suicide as a way of avoiding the more mundane failures of my life. I wasn’t going to tell anyone until I was sure. But how does one prove such terror is real except by committing the act itself?

My father knew, not definitively, perhaps, but with something like that visceral sense by which an artist comes to recognize the flaws in anything he’s made. Our relationship is as fitful as ever—we go months without talking to each other—but there is more ease between us now, more forthright affection and trust. I think this has more to do with him than me. During the fifteen years or so when our relationship consisted of little more than holiday exchanges of information, he endured a divorce, bankruptcy, the loss of his medical practice, the death of his second wife, divorce again, back surgery, an almost fatal rattlesnake bite, a heart attack (from the volume of serum given to counter the snakebite), cancer, a plane crash, alcoholism, the estrangement and self-destruction of his children, and no doubt several other calamities which he’s managed to keep secret. It was a run of luck that would have mellowed Caligula.

During the approximately six months that I was—what to call it?—thinking, sinking, we talked on the phone twice. On both occasions he asked me, out of the blue, and with a sort of mumbling quietude that I’ve begun to recognize in my own voice at emotional encroachments, “Do you ever think of doing away with yourself?” That’s just the way he said it, “doing away with yourself,” which led me to make a snide, annihilating comment about the linguistic imprecision and general uselessness of psychiatry, because in his late forties that’s what my father had become, a psychiatrist living on the grounds of a state hospital, where suicide was as ubiquitous and predictable an impulse as hunger, where even the doctor whose place my father had taken, whose office he used and whose bedroom he slept in, had “done away with himself.”

Some families accumulate self-consciousness in the way that others accumulate wealth (and perhaps one precludes the other). A man who eats and works and copulates all with same bland animal efficiency somehow sires a son who, maddeningly to the father, pauses occasionally in the midst of plowing to marvel at the shapes in the clouds, or who sometimes thinks fleetingly that perhaps there is an altogether different order of feeling than the mild kindliness he feels toward his wife. He in turn has a son who has the impulse to be elsewhere—geographically, sexually, spiritually—but not the wherewithal to wholly do so, who lives the impulsive, appetitive lives of his own children in the fixed world of his parents, and destroys both. A person emerging from the wreckage of this—and many simply don’t—is likely to be quite solitary, given to winnowings and adept at departures, so absurdly self-aware that he can hardly make love without having an “experience.” He might even be, maddeningly to all concerned, a poet.

That I should have turned out to be a poet seems strange to me for all sorts of reasons—I don’t relish poverty or obscurity, to name just two—but my background has never seemed one of them. Bookless though it was, my childhood, with its nameless angers and solitudes, its intimate, inexplicable violence, seems to me “the very forge and working-house” of poetry. Tellingly, my father, though he certainly never read poetry, is the one member of my family for whom my becoming a poet never seemed at all odd or surprising. I begin to understand this now. He knew —taught me—love’s necessary severities, how it will work itself into, even be most intense within, forms of such austere and circumscribed dimensions that, to the uninitiated, it might not seem like love at all.

I am eight years old. My mother has been scratched by the kitten we’ve had for a month or so, and there has been a flurry of panic and activity as she has had the beginnings of a severe allergic reaction and been rushed to the hospital. I don’t know where my brother and sister are, or why I’ve come home with my father, or if my mother is all right. I’m sitting on the couch, staring at the television, though it’s not on. My father is looking for something in a kitchen drawer, now he’s back in the bedroom looking for something else. My face is boneless, ghostly on the black screen. I’m hardly there. He walks past me with the kitten in one hand and a hammer in the other, opens the sliding glass door to the porch, closes it behind him. I shut my eyes, will myself away.

It’s eight years later. My father is having an affair. He and my mother are at the edge of what will be a nasty, protracted, ruinous divorce in which their children will be used as weapons. It’s the middle of the afternoon on a school day and I’m stoned, maybe on speed as well, I forget. Some little argument cracks the surface of civil estrangement we’ve tacitly agreed upon, and out of that rift all the old anger rises. I begin to curse at my mother in a way I’ve never done before or since, now I break something, now something else, and she’s scared enough to call my father at the hospital and leave the house until he rushes home.

They come in together. I am sitting in the living room, seething, waiting. My father stands over me and quietly—guiltily, I realize, the first flaw in his hitherto adamantine authority —asks me what is going on. I tell him I’m ashamed of him. I call him a liar. I curse him in the harshest and most profane terms I can muster. He hits me open-handed across the face—hard, but with a last-minute hesitation in it, a pause of consciousness that seems to spread like a shadow across his face and, as he sinks into a chair, is to this day the purest sadness I have ever seen.

I stand up slowly. I am vaguely aware of my mother yelling at my father, of my sister in the doorway weeping. I am vaguely aware that our roles have suddenly and irrevocably reversed, that he is looking up at me, waiting for what I’ll do. I hit him squarely between the eyes, much harder than he hit me. He does nothing but cover his head with his hands, doesn’t say a word as I hit him again, and again, and again, expending my anger upon a silence that absorbs it, and gradually neutralizes it, until the last blow is closer to a caress.

That was the end of my childhood. My father moved out within a month or so, and in the same time I gave up drugs (well, close enough), began the exercise regimen that I’ve maintained for twenty years, and started assiduously saving for the tuition for my first year of college, to which I was suddenly determined to go, and which I would choose entirely on the basis of its distance from Texas. Once there I sometimes went months without talking to any member of my family, whose lives seemed to me as dangerously aimless and out of control as mine was safely ordered and purposeful. I began to read poetry, which I loved most of all for the contained force of its forms, the release of its music, and for the fact that, as far as I could tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with the world I was from.

And then one night John killed a man outside of a bar. I’d kept up with him somewhat, had been forced to, in fact, since in a final assertion of physical superiority he’d ended my lingering relationship with my high school girlfriend by impregnating her. I knew that he’d gone to work in the oil fields, and that he was deep into drugs. Our friendship had fallen apart before this, though, a slow, sad disintegration that culminated in a halfhearted, inconclusive fistfight on a dirt road outside of town. I forget the reason for the fight itself, and anyway it wouldn’t be relevant. What we were trying to do, I think, was to formalize the end of something that had meant a great deal to both of us, to attach an act we understood to a demise we didn’t.

My mother called to tell me about it. John had gotten in an argument with a stranger that escalated into blows. They had been thrown out of the bar by bouncers and continued the fight in the street. In front of some thirty or forty people John had slowly and with great difficulty won the fight, beating the man until he lay on his back gasping for air. And whether the pause I’ve imagined over and over at this point is something that came out in the trial, or whether it’s merely some residual effect of my friendship with John, my memory of a decent and sensitive person to whom some glimmer of consciousness must surely have come, what happened in the end is a fact. At nineteen years old, with his bare hands, in front of a crowd of people who did nothing, and with a final fury that must have amazed that man who was only its incidental object, John destroyed him.

Hanging up the phone, sitting there in my dorm room of that preposterously preppy college fifteen hundred miles away from my home, it all came back, the guns and the fights, the wreckage of my family, my friendship with John, the wonderment in his voice in the hours after that hunting accident when he kept saying, I shot my father, I shot my own father, as if he were trying out the thought, trying to accommodate it in his consciousness.

I did what I always do: I went for a run, thirteen miles through the hills of Virginia, much farther than I usually ran, but without difficulty, my heart a steady thump-thump-thump in my chest. It was not release. It was the same thing as my precipitous decision to get out of Texas, no different from what poetry would be for me for years, until I would finally find myself back home one day, living on the grounds of that state hospital, collecting facts. It was what suicide would have been the final expression of: flight.

III

Dr. Miller’s face was obliterated. He walked out of the brush across from us and around the edge of the tank with the hesitant precision of someone making his way across a familiar room in the dark. Amid the blood and loose bits of skin there were clumps of pellets cauliflowering his cheeks and the sockets of his eyes, distorting his forehead and throat like a sudden, hideous disease, his dark shirt darker down his chest. His lips, too, were so misshapen that it was hard at first to understand the directives he was giving us, though he spoke calmly, deliberately, with the same west Texas mix of practical necessity and existential futility that no crisis could ever shock my own father out of.

He drove. I don’t remember there being even a moment of discussion, though both John and I had our licenses by then, and though Dr. Miller had to lean over the steering wheel to see, wincing as the pickup jolted over the ruts and stones. I was sitting in the middle of the seat, John at the door. I kept trying not to look at Dr. Miller, kept thinking that his breaths were shorter than they should have been, that I could hear blood in his lungs.

There were two gates before we got to the road. At the first one, John simply leapt back in the truck as it was still moving, leaving the gate unlatched. Dr. Miller stopped, turned his head like some sentient piece of meat toward us, and said, “Close the gate, John.”

At the second gate, after John had gotten out of the truck, Dr. Miller said without looking toward me, “You didn’t fire that shot, did you?”

Could it be, in life as well as in writing, that our deepest regrets will not be for our lies, but for the truths we should not have told?

“He didn’t mean to,” I said, the words spilling out of me, “it was an accident, we thought you were in the south pasture, we didn’t hear you, we…”

“It’s my fault,” Dr. Miller said peremptorily, putting his hand on my knee. “I know that.”

About halfway through the ride John began to weep. He was leaning over against the door, and as his shoulders trembled up and down, it seemed years were falling away from him, that if he were to reach out it would be with a hand from which all the strength was gone, if he were to speak it would be in the voice of a child. I looked out at the fields that had almost vanished, darkness knitting together the limbs of mesquite trees, accumulating to itself the crows and telephone poles, the black relentless pumpjacks which, when John and I spent the night out here, beat into our sleep like the earth’s heart.

Dr. Miller drove himself straight to my father, who was still at the office. My father registered no more alarm for Dr. Miller’s injuries than Dr. Miller himself had done, though my father did, I noticed, immediately and carefully touch my face, my shoulders and arms, as if to ensure himself that I wasn’t the one hurt.

John and I waited in my father’s office. I sat in my father’s chair behind the desk, John in the chair across from me, looking out the window. This is when I remember him saying, “I shot my father, I shot my own father,” not to me, and almost as if it were a question, one that neither I nor anyone else could answer. Not another word was said. I sat there watching the clock on the wall across from me, willing it to go faster, faster.

To be a writer is to betray the facts. It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, finally, in that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience itself, to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires. A great deal is gained, I suppose, a kind of control, the sort of factitious understanding that Ivan Karamazov renounces in my epigraph. When I began to spiral into myself and into my family’s history, it was just this sort of willful understanding that I needed. I knew the facts well enough.

But I don’t understand, not really. Not my family’s history and not my childhood, neither my father’s actions nor his absence. I don’t understand how John could kill someone, or by what logic or luck the courses of our lives, which had such similar origins, could be so different. I don’t understand, when there is so much I love about my life, how I could have such a strong impulse to end it, nor by what dispensation or accident of chemistry that impulse could go away, recede so far into my consciousness that I could almost believe it never happened.

It did happen, though. It marked me. I don’t believe in “laying to rest” the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

And yet I’ve come to believe, and in rare moments can almost feel, that like an illness some vestige of which the body keeps to protect itself, pain may be its own reprieve; that the violence that is latent within us may be, if never altogether dispelled or tamed, at least acknowledged, defined, and perhaps by dint of the love we feel for our lives, for the people in them and for our work, rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves, an energy we may even be able to use; and that for those of us who have gone to war with our own minds there is yet hope for what Freud called “normal unhappiness,” wherein we might remember the dead without being haunted by them, give to our lives a coherence that is not “closure,” and learn to live with our memories, our families, and ourselves amid a truce that is not peace.

I hear my father calling me from what seems a great distance. I walk down the hall of the office that has long ago been cleared out and turned into something else. But here are my family’s pictures on the walls, here is the receptionist’s window where my sister and I would play a game in which one of us had some dire illness which the other, with a cup of water, or with some inscrutable rune written on a prescription pad, always had the remedy for. And here is John, small and terrified, walking beside me.

Dr. Miller is sitting up on an examining table, his face swathed in gauze, his shirt off, revealing a sallow, soft, middle-aged body. Its whiteness shocks me like a camera’s flash and will be the first thing I’ll think of when, within months, John tells me that his father has left for another woman. We stop just inside the door, side by side. My heart seems almost audible.

“Well now,” my father says, smiling slightly as he looks to the table then back to us, “did you boys get your limits?”

Dr. Miller laughs, and John moves toward him.

He is all right. Everything is going to be all right. I stick my hand in my pocket full of cold birds to feel how close I’ve come.

This essay first appeared in Christian Wiman's book of essays Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet and was reprinted with permission of the author and publisher.

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is a poet and editor of Poetry magazine. He's the author of several volumes of poetry including Every Riven Thing.

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