In Zane Kotker’s “He Remembered His Life,” in the Spring 2011 issue of The Antioch Review, an old man in a foreign country remembers his life.
“He Remembered His Life” belongs with those stories that cut close to the life of the writer. In 2005 I attended a residency at Fundación Valparaíso, an artists’ colony on the Mediterranean in the dry hills of southeastern Spain. My husband had died a few years before—after twenty-one years of Multiple Sclerosis. During his illness our world narrowed and darkened, as can happen with long-term degenerative conditions. When he died, I remained wrapped in the habits and emotions of care giving.
When you get to an artists’ colony every need is provided for and a congenial group of fellows gathers for conversation at dinner time. Heaven is the word. Unless you have nothing to work on. Though I had begun a novel, The Inner Sea, I’d deliberately set it aside so I could return to it with fresh eyes at the end of the month. But I had to produce something at Valparaíso, didn’t I? Nothing came to mind. I panicked. I started writing paragraphs describing my daily walks around what to me was an exotic landscape: the strange hill behind the colony, the walk through orchards to the white town on the next hill. Eventually I took a few notes on my fellow colonists.
Gradually the grace of Valparaíso fell upon me and I began to let go of my husband’s long illness and to shed the habits it had bred in me. The air became sweeter, the walk to and within the village revealed unexpected new corners, and I was living like people who had not known long illness. Then one night at dinner came the serving of squid and the report of a ghost. In the narrow bed of my handsome tiled suite, the sorrows of the life I had left came back to me. Fear and dread returned, and I heard (an imagined) voice say: She remembered her life. Then came the sense of some other sound, some ghostly sound, out on the roof beyond my window. It was only rain.
The next day I turned myself into a man and morphed the spoken phrase into the opening line of the story: “It was four days before he remembered his life.” My husband’s long illness became the short illness of the imagined man’s wife and I transferred the chronic element into that of his son. I added in what I remembered about group dynamics from my life as a ghost writer for psychiatrists some years ago, disguised my fellow artists, and there you have it.
After fourteen years of rejection slips, Zane Kotker was lucky enough to be taken on by the legendary Bob Gottlieb at Knopf. Her novels Bodies in Motion, A Certain Man, and White Rising were published by them. Life intervened and Gottlieb went to The New Yorker, while Zane turned to nonfiction under the name of her grandmother, Maggie Strong. Her fourth novel, Try To Remember, came out through Random House and her fifth, The Inner Sea, A Novel of the Year 100, through Levellers Press. Her short stories have appeared in The Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Sun, and other journals. She won a fiction grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Must Read 2012 Award from the Massachusetts Center for the Book.
© 2015 The Antioch Review