“First Cause”

Sabina Murray

March 23, 2023 
The following is from Sabina Murray's Muckross Abbey and Other Stories. Murray grew up in Australia and the Philippines and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of Muckross Abbey and Other Stories, The Human Zoo, Tales of the New World, A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Forgery, Valiant Gentlemen, and The Caprices, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Evening was fading to night and the light showed sharper, first around his shoulders, then over the features of his face—the sloping brow, the hollowed sockets, the sharp cheekbones and hard-set mouth. She was aware of the space between them and then of the bitter glint of his eyes, which he was slowly raising to meet her own. Toby said nothing at first, just inspected her across the expanse of table, a frigid scape of dusted maple that was impossible to breach.

“What do we talk of tonight?” he said finally, his voice faintly echoing.

“What is left?”

A low chuckle escaped his pale lips. “For me, nothing. For you—”

“Whatever you have left me.” And what had he left her? A sense of yearning and the unfinished, a sense that they would never be done. If she had been more confident, she would have been able to push back, to make him see her fully. But she had failed in that and now was confronted with him before her, and while he ought to have been just a reminder of her marriage, of her partnership with this man, he was not, but more her awareness of all that was impossible between them. Could he hear her thoughts? It was impossible to know. “If only I wasn’t so alone. Then maybe I wouldn’t be losing my mind.”

“Ah. So we are back there,” he said. “You were always one never to let go of a thing but to pretend you had.”

“And you were always one to dodge what I was trying to talk about by pointing out some shortcoming on my part.” Toby’s face was somehow underlit, the shadows weak, but she could sense a tightening of his mouth. “Why did we do what you wanted to do?” she asked.

“We did nothing of the sort. What we did was maintain the status quo, which was to have no child. To have a child would have been an action. You would have had to argue for the change, to show that this action would positively impact our lives. And in that you failed. You were unable to prove how having a child would have made things better. You would always fall to some weak appeal to what normal people did, without being able to define ‘normal’ or being able to adequately illustrate the value of ‘normalcy,’ even if you had been able to do it.”

“Ten years with you made me a stranger to the normal. How could I define it? Everyone I thought was normal was doing something that I wasn’t allowed to do.”

“And you think that having a child would somehow have saved you? You don’t know that. You don’t know how the future would have played out. A child could have complicated things further. What if you were inadequate to the necessary tasks of motherhood? What if it had fallen ill?”

“What if he or she hadn’t?”

“You will get nowhere arguing like that. The possibility of making an accurate assessment based on an uncertain future is—”

“Is impossible. I get it.” Elia placed her hands catlike on the table. What if she had reached out and touched him? What then? “But what about giving me something that I wanted, because that would be a good thing to do for a person that you loved. Maybe you could have done something just to see me happy.”

Toby tilted his head. “And that might have been a good, and if it were a good, let’s see how it balances out against other goods. My need to have peace in the house, surely that is a good. When it came to finances, we were barely making it. This additional person would have been a drain on that. And the world doesn’t need more people.” He was nodding now, pleased with the progression of thought. “Our staying childless was the more reasonable proposition.”

“Okay.” She mirrored his head tilt, a mockery. “But if you break it apart, it doesn’t hold. We were spending money on things that could have helped toward the household expenses.”

“You mean that I was spending money on things that could have helped toward household expenses.”

“I always supported you in your work, but can’t you see that maybe all of the purchases weren’t necessary?”

“You’re talking about the Heidegger.”

Elia steeled herself. “It was a first edition.”

“It was not the object but what I brought to it, what it signified.”

“It was over two thousand dollars.” Elia watched the light shift across his face, an illusion of shadow on the table. “It was in German.”

“I read German.”

“Not as well as English. If it had helped you in your understanding or helped you finish your book, I would have understood that. But any book in English would have helped you more.”

“You can’t prove that.”

“But you did buy the book, and since you did it, and that’s what’s real, don’t you have to prove that it helped you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Like the existence of God. You have to prove that he exists. You can’t say that it’s impossible to prove that he doesn’t exist.”

“What does a first edition Sein und Zeit have to do with the existence of God?” The mockery now had a sympathetic edge, as if she were a deluded child.

“It’s the teapot,” Elia said warily. “The one that’s orbiting the earth.”

“Russell’s Teapot.” Toby’s head dipped, weighted with patience. “And?”

Elia had often wondered what it would have been like to be one of Toby’s students, but they all loved him. “You have to prove that the teapot is orbiting the earth. It’s not enough to say that you can’t prove that the teapot isn’t orbiting the earth.” She felt certain that he saved this intolerance for her. “But that’s not the point, is it?”

“There’s a point?”

“Yes.” The point was that Toby had needed to feel that he was a real philosopher and because the first edition Heidegger was something that he felt a real philosopher would own, he had achieved his goal. His dissertation supervisor, who Toby felt had never taken him seriously, had coveted a first edition Sein und Zeit, and when Toby had come across it on AbeBooks, he’d bought it without consulting Elia—an act of revenge against this retired professor, in case he, too, was trawling the site and might be able to fulfill his dream.

“And the point is?”

The point was that if Elia acknowledged this spiteful side to Toby, he would shift to rage. And no progress would be made. And they needed to progress, because she wanted the conversation to end, existed in that hope.

“You don’t need to tell me. I know what you’re thinking.” She knew that he did not but also that it didn’t matter. That in their marriage, what he thought she was thinking was the narrative of merit, and so she waited for Toby to tell her what occupied her mind, as his creation of it would be the practical reality.

“You’re thinking that if I’d finished my book, things would have been easier.”

She was thinking it now. Yes, Toby would have had that approval, that pride, a book on the shelf to sit next to the first edition Sein und Zeit to validate his thought. He’d taken a year’s leave without pay to finish the manuscript and she’d taken extra work as a tutor to make ends meet. The manuscript had gained mass without actually progressing. Yes, it would have been nice for Toby to be tenured instead of his having to renegotiate his tenure year as he wrangled with his publisher to extend the deadline, the specter of being recast as lecturer with greater teaching demands hovering. Although what was wrong with that? Toby was an excellent teacher. Didn’t she know it. And yes, she had supported him, told him he could do it, all the while waiting for Toby’s Copernican Revolution in semiotics to take the work of Wittgenstein and Lyotard and Derrida, this endless stream of men, to a place that had not yet been staked and claimed. And along with everyone else, Toby too, she had come to believe that he would never get there simply because he was too grounded in the thoughts of others—too believing in what they’d achieved—to think he would ever bring it further. If she’d ceased to believe in him, Toby’s life would have been intolerable, so she maintained a position, avoiding the alternate even in argument with self. It was dishonesty masquerading as kindness. No. Dishonesty was kindness. In this moment, the two concepts occupied the same territory, were somehow the same thing, had more in common than less in common and were, therefore, in possession of enough common ground to be approaching the identical. “If things were easier, you would have finished your book.”

When they first met, Toby had been a man alive with ideas—quick minded, full of promise. He was inarguably possessed of a fine intellect and anything he trained it on had lit up as a result of the attention. She too—a hard worker, a solid paper writer, a deadline maker—had come alive with his attention. She had found his rationality a tonic after a previous relationship, one where every argument came down to an appeal to emotion, her ex’s gaping passions so much greater than her own that she had felt invisible, even to herself. She had thought herself saved by Toby, had thought that through the supremeness of conscious dialogue that she was speaking her way into a more realized version of self. He had buoyed her, made her feel capable of things that before she had felt inadequate even to imagine. But as Toby’s opportunities had slowly closed off and the objectives onto which his intellect had been drawn shown a limited promise, he focused increasingly on her. And as the subject of his study, her inadequacies had quickly mounted. She felt continuously exposed—or on the brink of exposure—an anxiety of being that she could only escape when in her classroom, asking her students to earnestly sympathize with an endless array of fictional characters, their beings held safely within book covers, easily explicated, discussed in the simplest of ways: quizzes sought to elicit responses about what characters had done to determine whether or not students had read books; essays assigned to determine whether or not they had understood what they’d read. She’d shored herself up with endless sheaves of work to correct, a stream of meetings and curriculum days—and then tutoring on the side—and felt that in these moments she knew who she was. To return to Toby’s difficulties at the end of the day was to shelve her being in order to better understand his, as that was what the work in the marriage had become. Where was the man who had dominated every cocktail party, who could accurately attribute every concept, who had a font of ideas for papers and—one day—books, who was only challenged by the lack of time to put it down? How were this man and that man the same?

He was there at the end of the table, nothing but a shadow now, and the room looked cold; although she could not adequately sense whether this was the case.

“If you wish to say that if things were easier, I would have finished my book, you must define what these things are.”

She felt her shoulders bow under the weight of this next task. “Sometimes,” she said, “I don’t know who you are. I can’t. But I have a solid memory of who you were and have a hard time believing that the two are somehow the same.”

“Ah,” he said. “Let me explain this to you. Materialists would say that my occupying the same body implies that the before me and the current me are identical, but of course that has its problems. Is my body at the time of my being six years old the same body as that of mine now? Even the mass of the two bodies involved is different. Descartes states that the existence of a sameness of soul determines identity. But of course, that requires a belief in God, causality, all of that. So thank God”—here his voice dripped with irony—“for Kant and his Copernican Revolution, which gives us consciousness. Sameness of consciousness, a present self that has a memory shared with the past self, to give us who we are. We are our consciousness, body be damned. Soul”—more irony—“be damned.” His face was distorted then, a wash of gray acting across his features. “I am of the opinion that I am very much the same person. I remember me. I remember you. I remember this marriage.”

But his memory of the marriage was different from hers. He had thought her unbearably bourgeois and she had defined him by his dissatisfaction, always waiting to strike. Each termed the struggle “marriage,” but as their struggles related to different things, the struggles could not be termed as identical, or shared. “We remember our marriage in different ways,” she said.

“Of course. And there is a term that exists, ‘marriage,’ that we bandy about in conversation because how else does one discuss it, this different thing?”

“Wittgenstein’s Beetle,” she said. She remembered the beetle as a part of their courtship ritual, when she had thought semiotics more intriguing than horrifying. Wittgenstein had presented the idea that if a number of people were holding boxes and the thing in the boxes was a beetle, that they could talk about this “beetle,” which would signify the thing in the box without ever coming to an agreement about what a beetle was. A beetle could have been a thimble or a hairpin or a mouse. Language, language, language. As a child, Elia had wondered if what she saw as red was what other children saw as red or if they thought it was blue. There was, apparently, an entire field of study that was devoted to this, that tied into physics, that was there to take the everyday and to torture it into something so complex and deranged as to make life fraught with inexplicable, limitless horror. “I have always tried to support you,” she said.

“True,” Toby responded. His face blurred momentarily, then came into focus. “But your work always came first.”

He surprised her. Had he surprised her before? “How can you say that? I have always made decisions based on what was good for us.”

“Elia, Elia, Elia.” His figure wavered with each address. “So you say. But did you give it up for us or did you just give it up? Or just give up?”

She had been pursuing a PhD in English with a focus on the Edwardians. She was interested in writing about furniture, which might seem silly, but there was some significant furniture to be dealt with. Consider the bookcase in Howards End. But after meeting Toby, she had decided to pursue a master’s with a certificate in teaching. She had abandoned the Edwardians and their furniture to teach The Bean Trees to high school freshmen. Her decision to shift had been practical. A university would never have given both tenure. “I didn’t give up,” she said. “I made a decision that was good for both of us.”

“By ‘us’ you mean the usual ‘you.’ You became a high school teacher for me.”

“You are part of ‘us,’ so yes.”

“And so you are saying that the decision was good for ‘us.’ How can that be if you consider that it was bad for you? How could it have been good for ‘us’ if a solid half of the parties involved were adversely affected?”

“I didn’t say that I was adversely affected.” “But that is what you think.”

“At the time, it was a sacrifice but not one that I regretted. I liked teaching in the high school. I liked my students.” “But you often wondered what it would have been like had you not made that decision, had you continued on.”

“It’s only human to think that way.”

“And so you admit to that but not to having regrets?”

Why would she admit to regret? He was setting the trap for her, where she resented him and all the possibility that he had robbed from her, where that resentment was unfounded because she had no basis for concluding that the future would have been kinder. “You have already proven the futility of such thinking,” she said. “It is Schrödinger’s Cat.”

“Ah,” he said. “It is your ‘Schrödinger’s Cat.’”

My Schrödinger’s Cat?”

“Your Schrödinger’s Cat, which you always use to illustrate the impossibility of reasoning using an unknown future as a factor, when the Cat actually means something of a different nature, that one exists in a state of not knowing whether the cat is alive or dead because the cat is in a box, and that, as it is not witnessed, the cat is actually existing in those two states. And Schrödinger argued this against the Copenhagen Interpretation that a quantum superposition can exist in multiple states until the process of witnessing causes it to collapse into a specific outcome. Schrödinger points out that this is problematic as it is not the process of witnessing that defines whether the cat is alive or dead.”

“Then if I have been so wrong, why did you allow me to use that for so long?”

“Because I was accepting what it came to signify to you, and because we could discuss based on your understanding of it. Your use of it allowed us to further discussion. Your sense of the thing became useful, although in a limited way. It was part of our word game.”

“Word game?” She was nearly sobbing. “But all I see is that I’ve never understood anything, never could, or if I did, it was useless in our solving our problems.”

“That’s not entirely true.”

“So what is a truth about us that would satisfy you?”

“The truth is that if you had had a need to be satisfied, that would have satisfied me. Perhaps it is this that killed us.” But he could see that he was losing her, that she was disappearing, her edges blurring and the wall behind her slowly becoming visible as she diminished.

“No, Toby. It was a gas leak that killed us. Carbon monoxide.”

“There is hope for us,” he said with urgency. “We are not all blood and bone.”

“We are the cat,” she said, “alive and dead and with no witness to tell us which it is.”

“We are our consciousness. We are ourselves.” But as he urged this, he, too, was feeling that thinness that ended all their conversations. “Don’t go,” he begged. “I cannot exist without you, without you to see me—”


Excerpted from MUCKROSS ABBEY AND OTHER STORIES © 2023 by Sabina Murray. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

More Story
Live out your Jane Austen cosplay fantasies in the Austen family home, now for sale. Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort. Especially if your home is the Austen family's Steventon House...