No index of the women in my life would be complete without the first real love, the woman who haunted me from the day I met her almost forty years ago. Neloa Doole would have been sixty when we met, had she not tossed off a bottle of Lysol like rotgut rum and glared triumphantly at her husband some forty years before, in 1924. She'd be more than a century old this year, had she been immortal.
She is a fictional character who enthralled me, and continues to this day, to fascinate — more than Tess, Sarah Woodruff, Cleopatra or Phedre, Hester Prynne or Sophie Western or any of the hundreds of wonderful women I have met on the written page. She is the childhood sweetheart and wife of Vridar Hunter, the semi-eponymous hero of Vardis Fisher's In Tragic Life and four other books set in the Idaho wilderness at the turn of the century. I can't hope to capture in a few pages what this woman meant to me. When I first read Fisher's books, in high school, I was learning how to think, habits of mind and disciplines I have followed to this day. Question everything, and most of all your own vanity and motives. Hold the truth sacred. In nothing did Fisher seem to pursue that ideal more painfully than in his fictional examination of his first marriage. In nothing did those principles fail him more dramatically than with this wonderful woman.
The tragedy of the real-life marriage is acted out on a bare stage under stark incandescent light. Fisher fell in love with Leona McMurtrey (who became "Neloa Doole") when he was ten and she was six. Twelve years later, they were married. Another seven years later, two days before their seventh anniversary, he stormed out of their apartment after accusing her of infidelity with his own brother. She stepped onto the back porch, shouted his name, and stopped him in his tracks. When he turned to look, she drank the Lysol. A few hours later she was dead. Like her, he never recovered. It took him another forty years to die, but on that night when he lay down in the boat house with a bottle of whiskey and too many pills, I have no doubt it was Leona whose face hung above him as he drifted into one last sleep.
Like Fisher, I have been haunted by her since she first came into my life. Even when I was as fierce as the young Fisher about matters of fidelity, I trusted her to a degree he could not, I forgave her what he couldn't, I valued her beyond the trivia of sex, I saw the provocations he could not see. There is no question that he drove her to suicide, with his jealousies and schizoid tumbles from Augustinian puritanism to Laurentian sensuality. His culpability would stand up in a civil court of law, at least. He was dangerously neurotic, viciously insecure, a child of the most repressive and character-crippling childhood imaginable short of the camps at Belsen and Treblinka. His mother once beat him because a neighbor looked into his room while he was sleeping and saw the flesh of his bottom through a hole in his longjohns.
Neloa came into this Jansenist Hell like an angel of flesh. She was beautiful, intelligent, confident in her self. Her family was crude and earthy, but essentially good and kind. Whether he knew it or not, she was the savior he needed to rescue him from his Grendel-savage mother. As you might expect, his mother in him fought Neloa from the moment she appeared. Hunter could not break free of the vicious, anti-human culture he grew up in, and his distrust of her love, his loathing for her physicality, his contempt for her innocent worldiness destroyed her.
The Fisher/Hunter thing gets blended a bit here. It is clear, as you read Fisher's work, that it is Leona, always Leona, that the books return to, now as the innocent young femme of a Pleistocene clan, or the beautiful and wise young woman in a Greek village, or the part-Indian women his trappers fall in love with. Soon after her death, he wrote a series of unforgiveably bad poems for her called Sonnets to an Imaginary Madonna. He never reconciled with the idea that her death was the great failure of his life.
It was a bit of a shock, but no surprise, to learn when I read Fisher's biography that the novels palliate his guilt a bit. Of course they do. No one's stores of self-examining courage are fathomless. The novels suggest that Neloa probably was unfaithful to him, repeatedly, but the suggestion is never proved even in the fiction. Chances are, Leona wasn't, but there is no question that Fisher's mother and even his sister fed his paranoia every chance they got. The novels suggest that their relationship wrecked on the familiar shoals of educational disparities, that Leona did not share Fisher's obsession with education. In fact, she may have been a better student than he, and she was unable rather than unwilling to pursue her education after their marriage. He did not "outgrow her intellectually," he turned away from her in intellectual pride to someone of similar education. The novels do make clear, in defense of Fisher's honesty, that whether Neloa was cheating on Vridar or not, he was having an affair himself, with the woman who would become his second wife. So too with Fisher, whose lover and future second wife may well have attended Leona's funeral.
No one could have survived in the roaring furnace of Vridar Hunter's neuroses. He killed Neloa, and I would say likewise Fisher killed Leona. I forgive him, even though I have loved her, and hated him for not treating her better, since I first met her, when I read the two-volume redaction of the tetralogy that completes The Testament of Man. If I believed in an afterlife, then I would be confident that Leona forgave him as well. He paid. Forty years, he cried in the wilderness after her lost spirit. Twenty novels he wrote to try, again and again, to capture the essential salts and oils of her character. Perhaps it was not enough, this widow's mite of expiation. But what more could he do?
Early in the novel that introduces her, In Tragic Life, twelve-year-old Vridar criticizes her, in writing no less, for what he considers inappropriate behavior. Walking home with a dubious boy, I think the offense is. She responds in a short note: "If you don't like my gait, don't swing on it." I doubt, knowing the real Leona today, if she actually made that charming spelling error, but it was Neloa's brief note that broke my heart forever. I liked her gait; I liked it very much.