Catherine Madsen

Excerpted from A Portable Egypt by Catherine Madsen




A strong belief in the inevitability of a catastrophe attracts the catastrophe. 


—Eric Gutkind                         



The idea for the shrouds had come to Sarita when she read in a craft magazine of some Hmong women who, prevented by the exigencies of war from clothing their parents properly for the grave, still carried a weight of guilt for the omission. Only the graveclothes could mark the dead as members of their clan; unmarked they might wander forever, lost in the afterworld, and their ancestors would not know them. Sarita had felt the familiar unease of reading outside her culture: the stricken sympathy with the women’s burden of guilt, helpless and irremediable, and the simultaneous busybody wish to dissuade, to enlighten, to absolve by despiritualizing. “Oh, we in the West don’t believe…”—and all their grief wasted, inoperative, consigned to the realm of quaint pathetic myth. How much anthropologists have to answer for, she thought; and how the rub between cultures itself erodes the certainties of each culture. Not to accept another’s myths and rites is a tacit denial that the rites are effectual and the myths are true; in spite of one’s best intentions it is an insult. And one must either refuse to insult, and call into question the worth of one’s own past, or anxiously reassert one’s own certainties against the other’s. And then—suspicion, pogrom, gang warfare, government surveillance, the banning of religions and languages. It was a few years before the term ethnic cleansing etched its way into the maps, but its potential always waited, a corrosive seed in some politician’s mind or gonads, to spill and spread. Meanwhile Sarita, untrained in combat or diplomacy and wanting to respond through her own work, translated the graveclothes into evening dresses and made more money from them than the Hmong from their intricate cutwork. No use: in the rub between cultures, America efficiently band-sands everything down to the commercial—death, kinship, exile, war’s agony, filial duty betrayed. On such terms even homage is damage.

            Mim and Alan, it occurred to her, had been caught in the same trap: two warring cultures seeking a truce, but only one willing to give ground, and only until the price became painfully clear. Sarita felt for them both, but underneath feeling a small anthropological voice kept whispering, How could intelligent people live this way? We in the West don’t believe, not like that and not any more, and if Sarita had had the power she would have gone back in time, stopped Mim at her first church door, and told her to listen to her father. She bought a recording of the B minor Mass to play in the shop.

            Between Easy Landing and the college town, where Mim lived, lay a network of inlets and tidal flats. The roads went over causeways and bridges, crossing nearly as much water as land, with the water reflecting the color of the sky so that one seemed to be suspended in a bath of pure color—blue or grey or at sunset a luminous pink, and just after sunset the water turned a pearl color paler than the sky. Sarita tried periodically to mix those colors, puzzling over which surface best gave them back: silk satin, silk broadcloth, China silk. At one end of the longest bridge a derelict hotel perched like a rookery; a disused nuclear plant loomed on the far horizon. Sarita did not make the trip often, but sometimes she went halfway: there was an expensive grocery with organic vegetables and tempting imported condiments placed strategically between the two towns, and in an extravagant mood she sometimes went there.

            She walked through the grocery now, musing, checking out the customers’ clothes with a practiced eye, picking up greens and yogurt and Thai deli food. Someone was demonstrating a new brand of whole-grain pasta. “Cook it till it’s just done,” he was saying, “el Dante.” She turned and took a package so that she could. Back to the underworld: no avoiding it anywhere. Imagine wanting to join your ancestors after death. She was not sure she would find eternity with her ancestors tolerable. Surely not everyone wanted their ancestors: not everyone wanted their children. If you were not buried according to the right forms and your ancestors did not know you, would there be some wide cosmopolitan society of the unfamilied, more congenial than kin? Could you be buried by the right forms to be known to your friends?

            She thought of a line from the Gospel of Matthew: Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. If she bound the body in cloth on earth, what did she bind in heaven? A shroud for Mim’s unwelcomed baby, at seven weeks a curled, translucent bud with a skeleton of cartilage like a shark’s, infinitesimal gonads, a heart that pumped and a stomach that secreted acid and ears almost ready to hear? For Mim, still burdened by what she had not borne, and by the memory of misplaced trust and mistrust and failure?

            She thought and wondered, and tracked down some conservative Catholic writing, and let it all work on her sewing. Once she had lunch with Mim, and they talked about poetry and politics. (“But these writers were talking against Marxism, Mim, not against basic human competence; how could you mistake them?” “What did I know about Marxism? I knew about private life; I knew that submission to God was submission to chance, refusal to take charge of your future.”) But after that they did not speak again till late September, when a news bulletin sent her scrambling through her litter of telephone numbers and grabbing for the phone.

            “Mim, have you been near a radio? Morgenzahl’s been shot.”

            “Oh, my God, no. Is he—? Who—?”

            “As he was going into the clinic this morning. One of the protestors. I don’t know. They said he’s been taken to the hospital. I don’t suppose they know yet.”

            “Damn it, is he alive?” Mim cried.

            “Mim, I don’t know! They’re probably still finding out how he is. They know more about the gunman, because he turned himself in.”

            “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Christ. It’s because of what I said at the rally. Somebody’s decided to hunt Jews. Oh, Christ, even to call attention—”

            “Oh, Mim, I doubt it. Surely doing abortions is enough. Anybody who’s going to shoot him for that wouldn’t scruple about his religion. Calm down. Find a radio. Are you going to be all right?”

            Gradually, through the day, the story emerged. The gunman (as the news reports invariably called him, as if he were the villain of a Western) was a fundamentalist unknown to any local church, who had sporadically attended protests but had never worked steadily with the local group. He had recently lost his job and was determined to make a difference of some kind in the world. He had been clumsy and rather slow in pulling the gun, so that a couple of the other protestors, horrified, had time to seize him and deflect his aim somewhat. He had surrendered calmly to the police, only sneering over his shoulder at the protestors, “You poor saps. Think you care about babies, but are unwilling to take up arms in their defense. Sometimes you have to take a life to save a life; remember I told you that.” His one phone call at the police station was to the newspaper.

            Morgenzahl had been struck in the left shoulder; the bullet had broken his collarbone and lodged in the neck muscle. The subclavian artery was torn, and he had lost a lot of blood, but he was alive and not badly damaged. He issued an elegant statement thanking the protestors for their timely intervention: “Good people to have on one’s side, if only for a moment.” Within ten days he was out of the hospital and convalescing.

            What Sarita did not hear about till later was the note he had been sent there, as soon as he was well enough to get mail. It came in with hundreds of cards—solidarity from the national women’s organizations, outrage and fear from his colleagues, gratitude from former patients, incoherent scrawls of disappointment from his enemies—and thirty-two floral arrangements. His brother and sister-in-law opened the mail and read it to him, extracting the hate letters for a study the sister-in-law was doing on comparative bigotry. “Here’s a strange one,” she said. “She’s trying to take the blame. Is this somebody you know? Miranda Como?” He squinted, puzzled, but as she read it he started up. “Give it to me, Lisa,” he said. “I know who she is. She was years ago, before I had the clinic.” He reached carefully for the plain handwritten note.


Dear Dr. Morgenzahl, 

            I was greatly relieved to hear you were not badly hurt. I cannot help feeling I am

somewhat responsible. When you are well enough to have visitors, may I see you and

explain? Perhaps I’m only having an attack of nerves, but you may be able to judge better

than I can. Even inadvertent acts may have far-reaching consequences. 

            I have always been grateful for your help ten years ago, which has changed

my life in wholly unexpected ways.


Yours sincerely,          

Miranda Como 


            “No phone number, just an address. Is she in the book? Oh, good. Dial it for me, Jay, would you?” A short wait. “It’s an answering machine. Beeep! Yes, this is Bob Morgenzahl and I just got your note. I’d be delighted to see you. I saw you on the news this summer, giving this extraordinary speech, and couldn’t remember your name. It’s so good to hear from you again. I can’t think what you mean by feeling responsible for this nut with the gun. Come in any time. Don’t tell anybody else I’m seeing visitors.”