Nonfiction from Kailee Marie Pedersen

Photo by Frank Köhntopp on Unsplash

The Cordeliad

   

KING LEAR               What can you say to draw
………………………..A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA                Nothing, my lord.

 

After my grandparents and parents die, I will inherit one third of my family’s farm in Fremont, Nebraska. I have no idea how large the farm is, even though I spent a summer there when I was younger. It could stretch forth until it encompassed the entirety of the world, and it would not surprise me if it did.

There is a story I was planning to tell about this farm, about my great-grandfather’s departure from Denmark to come to America, about my father’s childhood as a chubby kid at Fremont High School. I was going to write about how my uncle renovated the farmhouse after my grandparents moved out, and though I have only seen it once, embryonic and half-finished, I am sure it is beautiful work. Still, I never asked for a piece of this legacy: not the etched window at the back of the house, not the wet earth near the creek, not the swing made from rotted wood. When I receive this pastoral inheritance, I do not know what I will do with my tiny sliver of Arcadia.

The pioneer homestead has become a fetishized image in America. My family is not exempt from the romantic allure of Mid-American Gothic. When I was in elementary school and we came up from Oklahoma to visit, my father took me to a place shadowed by trees and showed me where he had buried one of his old barn cats. My father also had a succession of German Shepherds: one knocked him over and gave him a concussion as a boy, and another was killed when it accidentally fell under a tractor. At Christmas, my cousin showed me pictures of a dead deer he was in the middle of skinning.

I have my own farm memories, but they do not make for exciting reading: scaring some nesting pigeons, getting hay fever, finding a snake in the garage. I knew some girls in Oklahoma who were proud to call themselves “farm girls” and Southern almost-belles. The woman who taught me Greek and Latin told me she had spent holiday break at her family farm in Alaska, reading ancient pastoral writers while baby lambs tumbled into her lap. Sadly, I have never had the chance to whip out Works and Days while on the farm, mainly because I do not like Hesiod but also because I do not like Nebraska. I especially do not like returning there; it is not, as Homer would put it, my Ithaca.

There is a town called Ithaca in Nebraska, as well as Crete. Once I banish the local minotaur, a small part of this infinity will someday be mine. However, this inheritance would require my father to die. Though my father dying is as inevitable as reading Shakespeare, it is unbearable to realize this.

My father has killed diamondback rattlesnakes with a shovel. I am sure he will never die. But if he does, I will go down to the underworld to rescue him, Orpheus with a violin (for lack of a lyre). Losing more than one father is egregious, even for the Ancient Greeks.

Cordelia’s mother is missing in King Lear, though no one bothers to explain why. Perhaps she left because Lear was always Lear and never Benedick—making her do the dishes, forgetting to laugh at her bad jokes. She could have packed her suitcase, careful to keep the framed pictures of Regan, Goneril, and baby Cordelia nestled in her scarf collection; she could have worn the diadem her mother gave her before she married, and thrown herself off the castle balcony. Or perhaps she simply vanished, as it often happens in literature, slipping into the stage directions and emerging, unfazed, onto a rainy downtown street corner. In New York I see many women standing on street corners with their bright umbrellas, and I wonder if any of them are Cordelia’s mother. Whenever I see an older Asian woman walking down the street, I wonder if she is mine.

 

KING LEAR               So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA                So young, my lord, and true.

 

I read the part of Cordelia in high school. It was hardly my first Shakespearean role that I butchered—my original affront to the theatre was the Queen of Scotland, who had somehow become Asian (with an American accent) in English class. I even blushed when the cute boy playing Macbeth turned to me in Act 2 and said, What, ho!

I am very fond of Cordelia. I say this as someone who has been eternally dedicated to the cruelest bitches of the stage: Claire Zachanassian, Hedda Gabler, Clytemnestra. Cordelia was one of my more honest, if slightly wooden, portrayals. What separates Cordelia from her sisters? She willingly rejects her inheritance and refuses to bow down to her father’s wishes, even though she is the only one who truly loves him. Although she dies at the end (as it often happens in Shakespeare plays), she was so beloved that Nahum Tate rewrote her storyline to save her and marry her off to the noble Edgar. This became the only version performed of the two plays for a century and a half.

Despite my penchant for happy endings, I do not foresee a universe in which I gladly accept my portion of the land and return to Nebraska to live out the rest of my days. Cordelia is the most honest of her sisters, so I too must be honest: if I am to inherit one third of a kingdom, I will not rule it. There is nothing for me in that place where my father was chased by a pack of coyotes and almost gored by a bull.

At the end of The Good Earth, the wealthy once-farmer Wang Lung is dying. He says to his children, “If you sell the land, it is the end.”

His sons sell the land anyway, of course. I must betray my father, King Lear or Wang Lung, to rid myself of this burning soil.

The fantasy of an idyllic farm life is a fever dream from which I have awoken but the rest of America has not. One of my high school English teachers once assigned a creative writing exercise in which we were supposed to write about our “home”. She meant Nebraska, of course. Ever the contrarian, I wrote that I did not have a home, nor did I have any history. I think she was unhappy with this answer.

When we read The Bluest Eye, I was the only person who brought up the subject of blackness and white beauty. When we read My Antonía, I dared to mention that Willa Cather was probably a lesbian. That semester, or possibly the one before, I was called crossbred for being half-Japanese. A classmate I knew refused to address me as anything except, Hey, Asian!

A peculiar loneliness rises in me when I remember these things: that person, according to my friends, has grown into someone who writes strident Internet screeds about the importance of racial minorities in film and openly campaigns for awareness of LGBTQ issues. I desperately wish to forgive them, to be as magnanimous as Cordelia. We were young, after all. So very young.

I do not have the privilege of redemption. I have been called a bitch so many times that I have acclimated myself to the term. Now I bear it in my mocking smile, and I do not care very much anymore what people call me these days. Bitch, whore. Cordelia, Lady Macbeth.

I have forgiven approximately three people in my entire life. But not this one.

 

KING LEAR               How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
………………………..To have a thankless child!

 

This is a futile test of imagination. My favorite stories are possessed of a wild ugliness. They desire and they devour beyond logic; there are plot holes, flaws, and inconsistent characterizations. They do not hunger for beauty but greatness. This is why the Iliad attracts me, though the episode with Dolon is especially frustrating. It strains against the weight of its poetry, as though it would like to transcend its own language.

There is a certain triumph in survival after two thousand years. Yet our knowledge of several Greek works is accidental: Euripides wrote more than ninety plays, and we have around eighteen through the happenstance of history.

I am not the kind of woman for whom the playwrights craft ingénue roles. Not anymore. I have known this for a very long time. I have known, always, that this would be my fate. Perhaps I was a girl once, though I do not remember it well. Now my voice has lowered to a sadistic contralto; I have nasty rejoinders for practically every insult. I will never play Cordelia again.

King Lear is a tragedy. It is one of the greatest, but it is still a tragedy. Cordelia inherits her own death and Lear’s as well.

I do not want one third of the family farm because I do not want my father to die. I will not live in Nebraska, nor die there, in that place where my grandfather slaughtered cows and my father caught fireflies for me in a small jar. Let the devil laugh at my funeral, then. I would do anything to avoid the fate of Cassandra, to die dreaming in a foreign land.

The one summer I spent on my grandparents’ farm as a young girl was idyllic in its desolation. I would stay up late each night writing terrible short stories, and my grandmother would make me hamburgers for lunch. Back then I could still look my grandfather in the eye. He and I went fishing once and he drove me to the lake in his truck and we watched the bobbers for hours in aching silence, drinking soda and hoping for trout. If we caught one that was too small, we had to throw it back. I remember pulling the hook from their mouths and tossing them into the lake. I felt bad for them because there was so much blood: on my hands, in the water. At age twenty I would sing Schubert’s Die Forelle, perhaps as an apology to those poor sacrificial victims.

The fish is betrayed at the end of Die Forelle; its innards turn the water scarlet. I think occasionally of the little girl standing on the banks of a Nebraska river with a too-long fishing rod in her hand. I have betrayed her an unforgivable number of times. I am still doing it, as early as a month ago, or even yesterday.

Lying becomes very easy, if you practice it enough: like playing the piano, or riding a bike. To cloak yourself in cosmopolitan self-degradation can be as simple as tearing out Gloucester’s eyes.

Nowadays when I see my grandfather I cannot look at him. Did Cordelia flinch from the madness of her father? I fold and refold my napkin at family dinners. I cling to the memory of us sitting at the riverbank hoping for trout and then eating sandwiches on a picnic bench afterwards. King Lear tells Cordelia that she has reason to hate him and that he understands. Cordelia replies that it is not true; she has been a devoted daughter from the beginning.

I am not very good at being Cordelia. All of my charity has slowly leaked out of me. When a man tells me I am sexy even though I am still in high school and he is much older I think, I should be very flattered. When my grandmother talks about “the Orientals” I think, It was different back then. When my grandfather tells me something terrible about Asian people, I try very hard to remember that he taught me how to fish, once upon a time in the English Restoration.

Even after she is exiled and cast out of her family, Cordelia never asks how her father could do this to her. Neither do I. It is a sign of faithlessness, this asking. Better to die at the end of the play than suffer being called an ungrateful child.

I can no longer play Cordelia, I told one of my professors. I used to, but now I’m me.

She laughed, not necessarily because it was funny, but because it was true.

If only I were Nahum Tate’s Cordelia, who received a happy ending after suffering so much. Still, she paid the price for erasing Shakespeare. No one remembers her anymore.

When it comes to literature, you never die. But you never really live, either.

 

GLOUCESTER         As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
………………………..They kill us for their sport.

 

Since I cannot play Cordelia, I must play Edmund instead. Edmund slanders his brother, hates his father, ruins Lear, has an affair with two sisters at the same time, and ends up getting nearly everyone killed. Edmund the bastard child, the one who does not belong in the family tapestry. Because he is the illegitimate second son, he will inherit nothing.

Why bastard? Wherefore base? His mother might have been a whore. Edmund is the most selfish of children, to betray his own father. But his motives are understandable: after years of unhappiness, what else is there to do except overthrow the king?

Unlike the superior Iago, Edmund has the great flaw known as a conscience. He is too late to save Cordelia, though he attempts it. Edmund does not understand that destroying a man’s life is the noblest of goals; history would be nowhere without revenge tragedies filling the streets with blood. I too feel the shadow of regret when I turn away from snide comments at my grandfather’s birthday dinner. I despise admitting that I am wrong, but I will occasionally apologize if prompted. I am overly fond of my friends, but the moment we are no longer hopelessly entangled I am as wrathful as the Furies.

I tried to save Cordelia, but she always dies. She dies when my father criticizes me for not practicing the piano for three hours a day, and she dies when I remember that my parents only went to China because they had exhausted all other methods of having a proper Edgar, a true bloodline.

Ambition in Shakespeare is a death sentence. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed. I killed Cordelia and became Edmund because I could not stand the Midwestern appetite, to have a plot of land and machines with which to till it. I do not mean that I am destined for greater things, though I am arrogant enough to think so at night, in secret; I mean that when I was in the seventh grade I attempted to write a novel about the Russian mafia but failed, and then I read some books, and then I read better books, and now I am hopelessly ensnared by book-reading. Literature inevitably leads to the dissolution of a woman’s petticoats and then her morals, which is perfectly fine with me.

I must be ambitious because there is no way out of being a woman. If there were, I would have found it by now. But if you are very, very clever, you can alter the course of fate, like light bending toward a distant star.

I was once meant to be a violinist, but now I write, which is more Edmund than gentle Cordelia. Edmund composes one letter and destroys his family. I cannot destroy a family that I bought with my shredded arteries, when I was so young I did not even know what arteries were. But if I could, if I could—

I do not dare consider this. I love my family very much, I say, which is true. It is also true that I hope my birth parents are dead, because then I will never have to face them like the coward I am. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is the ghost of my father, but I have never wanted to be the Prince of Denmark. Let me be Edmund, with my inheritance of nothing and no expectations. I will betray my father and my country for the sake of narrative continuity, the decline and fall. A notorious Shakespearean villain is not the worst role in the world. What an empire was offered to Edmund, I recall, and oh, how he had paid.

The owner of a small press once claimed that I was the most brilliant young writer he had seen in forty years, but the only thing that glitters in me is self-loathing. I have been told that I am most likely a good person. I am not sure if I believe this. Good writers do not make good people. Edmund tries to redeem himself, but everyone dies no matter what he does. Always the bastard son, the plaything of fortune.

A fine word—‘legitimate’, Edmund sneers, and I cannot bring myself to contradict him.

 

EDMUND                   As for the mercy
………………………..Which he intends to Lear and to Cordelia—
………………………..The battle done, and they within our power,
………………………..Shall never see his pardon; for my state
………………………..Stands on me to defend, not to debate.

 

I extend no mercy toward my younger self. Why would I? Back then, I believed in many things that approached a faith in God but merely stood in his alcove: neat endings, violin concertos, love immemorial. I see her passing me in the hallway of my old house in Nebraska, and sometimes in the surface of glass coffee tables. Little Cordelia, not yet Edmund, not yet overly concerned with her appearance or how shallowly erudite she seems. I have tried to salvage her from the mess that was my teenage years, but I cannot bear to see her reflection. People speak fondly of their younger days, and I feel very confused. I have never wanted to be in high school again, plain and unhappy, comforted only by my shining hair.

That is what my grandfather said to me last: Your hair is very shiny.

Thank you, I said. I comb it every day in front of the tiny mirror you get in college dorm rooms. Maybe one day, if I comb it enough, I will finally be beautiful.

 

ALBANY                   The weight of this sad time we must obey;
………………………..Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
………………………..The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
………………………..Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

 

Oh, to be seventeen again, with my velvet antlers, to be courted by Tsar Koschei and the river Achelous—

You are never young twice. There are only so many times you can play the ever-charming Vasilisa before the audience grows bored of you, before Koschei throws you away like all of his other wives.

I will never be so beautiful as I was when I was still in Nanning, before I had inherited my lineage of ash. I was beautiful enough for the King of France then, but not beautiful enough for my mother to come back for me. I never am. But I will comb my hair and cut off my antlers in every cervine variation, just to believe that she will.

If I were Cordelia, I would know what to do with one third of paradise. I would not crown myself with useless metaphors. I have been disinherited three times: once by Lear, once by Gloucester, once by China. Like Edmund, I might regrow the kindness that I cast off so easily when I was younger. I do not have high hopes for this, but I hope all the same.

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Kailee Marie Pedersen is a recent graduate of Columbia University. She was adopted from Nanning in 1996. Her work has appeared in Strange HorizonsThe Boiler JournalArcturus, and others. She is currently working on an essay collection and a novel. Her favorite Shakespeare role that she never got to play is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing.

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