A Movement in the Soul
My daughter, fifteen, kneeled on the lowest stone step up to the altar.
She said, simply, “My God, how moving.”
We were on holiday together, after a long estrangement during which she had lived with her mother.
She asked me, “What do you think is meant by, ‘How moving’?”
“I suppose some movement is meant.”
“When you feel a movement in yourself, some movement that, oh, is greater than you could ever think or could ever feel.”
“You’ve felt that?”
“When was that?” she asked.
I wanted to say: When you were born. I wanted to let her know she moved me, that my love for her moved me. But she would have sensed that I was lying, that at her birth I turned against her and her mother, that she inspired in me only despair, that I never loved her.
The painted wooden statue was of the Madonna, wearing a long pink dress cinched in tightly just below her small breasts and falling in soft folds to the tips of her pointed shoes. Her hair was yellow and braided about her head, her neck was slender and long, and her delicate face, the paint finely cracked, was pink. She held out her hands, large hands with long fingers, as if in surprise, though her face was calm. She was on a side altar in the dim church, where she had been for centuries.
I cannot say I have ever been moved by love, not as I have understood from others—from my former wife—what the movement of love is, the lack of which in me, especially at the birth of our daughter, was her reason for leaving.
“What is the truest thing said?” Pythagoras asked, and answered, “That men are evil.”
I will not try to explain why I believe this, but say, simply: I know from my past, when I felt a movement in my mind so much greater than any thoughts or feelings that that movement reduced all thoughts and feelings, and especially love, to nothing, for the movement in my mind had been caused by evil.
The evening of our last day together, my daughter, having considered the statue that had so moved her, said, “She was the mother of God.”
“So some people believe.”
“And she was a virgin mother.”
“Again, so some people believe. How do you know?”
“Mummy told me.”
This was not my affair, but I resented that her mother had talked to her about religion, for what had attracted me to her mother—incidental to her beauty and intelligence—was that she was as opposed to religion as I was as a justification of evil, and we had agreed that whenever we had a child the child would be brought up with none.
“Has your mother become religious?”
“Not particularly, but if you’re not told about something you want to know.”
My daughter—my beautiful, intelligent daughter—was almost excited by what she knew. “And to be the mother of God she had to have been born without sin, without the sin we are all born with because of the sin of our first parents, which is passed on down to us and makes us evil. The sin was not passed down to her. She was totally without evil. Her conception in her mother’s womb was what is called immaculate, the Immaculate Conception. Did you know that?”
“I knew that.”
“But you don’t believe any of it?”
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, as if my denial of belief only excited her more (was she trying to make contact with me in a way she hoped would touch me?), “and this idea came to me.”
“The Immaculate Conception is inconceivable. Isn’t that so?”
“I’d say so.”
“And yet the idea was itself conceived.”
“So the very idea of the Immaculate Conception is to conceive the inconceivable.”
I felt myself draw far back from her to see her as if from a far distance, her voice, too, coming from a far distance.
I heard her say, “To conceive of the inconceivable, isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that miraculous? Just think of what inconceivable can be conceived, just think! To conceive the inconceivable! Just think of that!”
And I wondered if her mother had told her about the evil I had survived only in body but not in soul, the evil she was trying to save me from, by conceiving inconceivable love in me—love, especially, for her.
Read David Plante’s introduction and other Essential Stories.
© 2009 by David Plante
David Plante is the author of the novels The Ghost of Henry James, The Family (nominated for The National Book Award), The Woods, The Country, The Foreigner, The Native, The Accident, Annunciation, and The Age of Terror. He has had stories and profiles in The New Yorker, and features in The New York Times, Esquire and Vogue.