SHE NAMED HIM MICHAEL by Heather Rounds
Ink Press Productions, 2017
69 pages – Ink Press Productions
One measure of a society’s greatness lies in how it slaughters animals. Massaging a lobster’s head before dropping in the boil, or painlessly bleeding out only the healthiest ram as in halal practices, or ritually blessing the cow before folding and snapping the brisket—all in some way represent a spiritual link between creature and cook. There is even a scientific reason for this. Terrified animals produce high levels of adrenaline, which taints the meat. This is why tabbies play with mice and birds. To a cat, adrenaline is ambrosia. But we’re different. Once you’ve tasted an animal killed peacefully it’s hard to stomach any other kind of flesh.
Heather Rounds’ novel, She Named Him Michael, is born of slaughter. The triggering scene is merciless and mundane. A husband on small family farm in Colorado brings an axe down on a chicken. But there’s a lot on this man’s chopping block. What exactly is he trying to kill? His shooting himself in the foot as a boy during a Quixotic attempt to dig to China? His sense of failure (and guilt) at not joining his brother to die in Normandy? His unwillingness to talk openly with his mother and his wife, reducing their lives to hard-knocking independent chores?
“Shotgun Foot” brings the axe down on all of this traumatic chaos and fails again. He only severs ninety percent of the chicken’s head as his wife Claire enters the page:
The chicken came to her foot and gurgled. She came close to the gurgle.
Her smell, if the chicken could have said it, was of buttermilk. (…)
Enough said Shotgun Foot. He picked up the headless chicken and dropped
it in the dark of the barn. A cat ate its head.
She Named Him Michael is a novel of the impossible and the incomprehensible. Of course the chicken lives, nursed day and night by Claire who uses a syringe to feed a gruel of ground corn and water through its raw exposed throat. Michael cannot see, hear, taste, speak, or smell. He can only feel, reacting to touch—Claire, her hands, his bedding, the ground—by a kind of muscle memory. And, because the mangled ends of its windpipe are scarred together with its esophagus, Michael is at constant risk of drowning on his gurgling stomach acids (birds are constantly regurgitating because of their weak digestive tracts). His swallowing and breathing reflexes are conjoined, and the animal is just north of a vegetable.
We meet the family—Shotgun Foot’s mother, his wife Claire, and Shotgun Foot himself—singly. For much of the novel there is almost no direct interaction between the characters. Their world has overtaken them, like the rampant velvet weeds and broadleaf suffocating their sugar beet crop so that everything is lush but thirsty. Labor and the physical elements and the ghost of the lost brother add as much to the story as any dialogue or train of thought.
Minutes moved and everyone on the farm continued as days came again.
The winds continued to chip the rock. The Supersaurus bones lay still
under dark, dense earth. The cats stalked through the fields of sugar
beets for mice. The velvetleaf weeds rose over the sugar beets and Claire
yanked them from the earth. The seeds flung denser by the minute. Michael
became as predictable as the lip of light that lined the Great Valley
every morning and evening. He balanced on a perch as much as he could
and walked in a crooked line. Through his blood ran the water, grain and
corn and Claire’s voice. Her voice swam and batted up and down. He
gurgled and pecked at the ground and could grasp nothing.
I almost forgot to mention that the Great Valley is a graveyard for one of Michael’s distant ancestors. Supersaurus is the dinosaur with an incredibly long neck whose head, body and tail comprise the length of two or three buses. They were first discovered near Delta, Colorado in 1972. Just one of those details that is too weird to believe. In fact, what distinguishes Rounds from the magic realism which must be her dearest cousin is that Michael’s story actually happened. There are records. There are Life magazine articles. There are receipts. And maybe it’s the reality of a true story and her skill in researching it that frees Rounds from having to self-consciously balance the concrete with the abstract. History gave her the plot points so that her work as an author is to create wonderful impressions and moods around the truth.
One of the intriguing elements of this book is how one’s identity and one’s nature are two separate things. Sometimes, often even, identity and nature are twins, but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing. Michael’s identity has lived beyond his nature. Shotgun Foot’s mother has a nature, but no identity. Throughout the book she is referred to as “the woman whose head sat small under tight curls.” Claire’s identity changes as she discovers new nature within herself. Michael only lives and performs because of her rituals with him which include having to spit water into Michael’s aperture to prevent his choking.
Shotgun Foot loses himself for much of the tour—he and Claire join a traveling fair and Michael is the star attraction in the Tent of Nature’s Mistakes where he shares billing with an earless elephant, a three-legged tiger, the werewolf woman and her sister the “missing link” and others. Gradually, Claire ventures farther from the small trailer box where they live, visiting others in the fairgrounds and studying the attractions. Husband and wife connect with other characters as the novel builds its crescendo—Shotgun Foot with Cora who needs him to build a trampoline (from a distance she appears to be a bird), and Claire with Gypsy Grandma, a machine that tells the same fortune to everyone:
At first, one may be reluctant or unable to witness their own shape—the length, width, thickness—as an artifact among all others, endless. It all has a beginning and end.
Your beginning will end, too. You will end too.
She Named Him Michael is a novel of old wounds and very old wounds, and making an existence in spite of wounds. In this, Rounds has uncovered all of the mystery behind Coleridge’s epic poem, The Ancient Mariner. At times, Claire is like the old sailor surviving the story she tells, at others the old sailor resembles Shotgun Foot’s mother. Michael is so like the albatross who guides the lost crew through the polar fog and mist of life, the lavender ash covering their Great Valley homestead. Claire, is also like Coleridge’s Polar Spirit, “who so loved the bird that loved the man that shot him with his bow.” Clearly, the old mariner Rounds has seen and lived and done things in her life beyond the rest of us. Her courage alone in shaping this story would awe any brave heart. Theologian Malcolm Guite observes of Coleridge’s famous bird, Michael is testament that “the root of human evil lies in acts of needless violence against other species.” And here is Rounds, yanking that weed from the earth.
I suspect that more than one reader will view this book as a parable about a society that forbids healthcare to the very citizens it has harmed with unsafe mines, contaminated drinking water, and mischievous pharmacology. But it’s important to experience this novel without adding any political smirk to it. Rounds’ literary influence is closer to the Enlightenment than the Resist movement. Hers is the belief that we do not die merely because we are killed. We die only when someone stops loving us.