Monday, September 7, 2009

Words That I Love/Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's a wonderfully precise, excellently descriptive writer.  It's amazing how much she can see in even just a square inch of earth.  In a notebook from 1990 I copied out a passage from her An American Childhood.  Dillard, born in 1945, was about five, growing up in Pittsburgh, when:

In the leafy distance up Edgerton I could see a black phalanx.
It blocked the sidewalk; it rolled footlessly forward like a tank.
The nuns were coming.  They had no bodies, and imitation
faces.  I quitted the swing and banged through the back door
and ran to Mother in the kitchen.

I didn't know the nuns taught the children; the Catholic children
certainly avoided them on the streets, almost as much as I did.
The nuns seemed to be kept in St. Bede's as in a prison, where
their faces rotted away -- or they lived eyeless in the dark by
choice, like bats.  Parts of them were manufactured.  Other 
parts were made of mushrooms.

In the kitchen, Mother said it was time I got over this.  She took
me by the hand and hauled me back outside; we crossed the
street and caught up with the nuns.  "Excuse me," Mother said
to the black phalanx.  It wheeled around.  "Would you please
just say hello to my daughter here?  If you could just let her see
your faces."

I saw the white, conical billboards they had as mock-up heads;
I couldn't avoid seeing them, those white boards like pillories
with circles cut out and some bunched human flesh pressed like
raw pie crust into the holes.  Like mushrooms and engines, they
didn't have hands.  There was only that disconnected saucerful
of whitened human flesh at their tops.  The rest, concealed by a
chassis of soft cloth over hard cloth, was cylinders, drive shafts,
clean wiring, and wheels.

"Why, hello," some of the top parts said distinctly.  They teeter-
ed toward me.  I was delivered to my enemies, and had no place
to hide; I could only wail for my young life so unpityingly

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