From StoryQuarterly 48: The Book of Hours

Melissa Febos

The Book of Hours


“No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god.”

-Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”


We had no television, no God, no family less than a day’s drive away, but we had stories.

“Once upon a time in Spain,” read my sea captain father, “there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand.” Dad’s back against the couch, me the fat baby on his chest, the curtain drifted over us as summer pushed through the open window. I mouthed every word he read, studied the shine of that cow mother’s eyes, the curve of Ferdinand’s eyelashes beneath the cork tree.

It was a storybookish early life—my mother beautiful, my curly-haired sea captain father, our town surrounded on three sides by the sea. Out my bedroom window glittered a lake of murky depths, stewing with slimy life. We were lucky, which isn’t the same as happy, if you believe in such a thing.


Today, my beloved and I drove from her home in the Mojave Desert to Tucson for a conference. Now, in the hotel bed, we read Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer, in which he follows rival matadors Luis Miguel Dominguín and Antonio Ordóñez across Spain during the summer of 1959. The book is her selection—her grandparents are from Spain, and she has been to bullfights, has seen a toreador lifted into the air by a horn in his thigh.

“It was a good day for bulls at Aranjuez on May thirtieth,” she begins.


The first time I heard her voice, I sat in a theatre full of people. The dark thick with wood and sweat and whiskey, all of us listening. I’m sure I carried a story of my own into that room—there was pool of light, and in it she gripped the podium’s shoulders, read, listen to me—and I did not remember myself until she let go.


“The river was brown and swollen from the rains,” she continues. Cheek to her chest, I am listening to more than the story. Her skin’s smell—salted honey, the smooth and muscle of our pressed thighs, the lull of sleep and our slowed pulses. They become the same thing. Just as the desert and the sky’s hundred-houred layers of color and the mountains and the dry tongue of road and the dead rattlesnake we found in it this morning—scaly rope fat enough to dock a boat—and the wide open parts of my chest become the same thing. Enormous.


When my father was home, he woke from dreams, screaming. When he was gone, we did. When he was gone, we waited—time flexing in waves, each one to be continued. At six years old, I became a sleepwalker. In the silent hours, I rose from my bed, pajamas soaked with sweat. I walked the halls and climbed the furniture. I searched the empty spaces of our house—cupboards and closets, boxes and drawers, my father’s side of my parents’ bed. My mother found me in the living room, straddling the back of the couch, staring out the window. She led me back to bed. In the morning, I woke up salt-white from my journeys.

In the dark of my bedroom, I counted all the dangers my father might meet: storms that turned the sea foaming, fanged, ravening for ships; 200-ton beasts big enough to gulp a school bus, let alone my father, my Jonah. And if so, what then? What god would compel my father coughed up onto the shore, to leave the sea for good? He didn’t believe in any god. He didn’t want to come home.

I knew that real pirates always kill the captain first—slit his throat to show the crew they are not afraid to bloody the decks. The moonlight trapped my fears in its shadows, played them against the walls of my bedroom. My father had met such storms, had fought pirates, and while these stories sounded like fairy tales to other children, no real child could survive in a fairy tale.

When my father was at sea, I never cried. My brother and I never spoke of missing him. Instead, we crawled out from nightmares and into my mother’s bed. Read, I’d say, craving the assurance of known words. My mother never stuttered when she read, and never wept. When my mother read, I believed her. Whether we knew what came next or not, we trusted those stories, because we could not our own.


Once upon a time, after one kiss and a month of letters, I flew across the country to meet an almost stranger, my future beloved. The two days we spent together were a new kind of easy, but on the last night—before I left, or we knew when we’d next meet or as what—she got a call that her mother was ill.

What’s wrong? I asked. At first, she would not, or could not tell me. I knew better than to tell her it would be okay. It might not have been. It is hard enough to accept comfort from those who know us, and nearly impossible from those who don’t. Can I read to you? I asked. It was the only comfort I had to offer, and one I knew well. Rilke? I asked, because I’d brought The Book of Hours in my suitcase.


The Book of Hours is a book of love poems to God, though Rilke was in love with a married woman when he wrote them. So, I think it is also a book about loving a woman. Maybe every desire is the desire to give ourselves away to some perfect keeper, to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us. So many of the lines in his “Love Poems to God” are the promises we want from our lovers. Maybe The Book of Hours is about how love makes women into gods. Not the kind we seek in churches, but the Greek kind – the kind whom loving might scorch the human lover dead, or turn her into a different kind of animal. The kind we create, who are too human in their loving us.

Like Rilke, I fell in love with a married woman. Across those 2,500 miles, she began the slow process of prying her life apart. I waited, and that waiting pried me apart.

I can’t do this, I whispered to myself in the morning, in the shower.

I can’t do this, I heard in love songs on the radio, while driving to work.

I can’t do this, I told my friends, after her wife called me on the phone.

I can do this, I said into her hands, then pressed that promise against my body, as if her touch could make it true.

Soon after our first weekend together, I sent her some of Rilke’s lines: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror / Just keep going. No feeling is final / Don’t let yourself lose me.” By then we were in love, with a country between us. It was already hard to see a happy ending across all those miles. In the Book of Hours, Rilke said, “I would describe myself like a landscape I’ve studied at length, in detail / like a word I’m coming to understand…like a ship that carried me when the waters raged.” How would I describe myself, then? As a storm. I was both ship and squall, without any right words.


Uncertainty and distance are similar afflictions—even more irreconcilable problems than an incumbent wife. They each carry an unknown quantity so great that no absolute value can be estimated. The mind—dumb, houndish thing—still tries to solve them. I was tireless, and so tired. I became forgetful. I grew thin. What will happen? we kept asking each other. Where are you? But there were no answers. All I could do was wait.


Rilke, my beloved told me, pushed his wife down the stairs. Or so she heard. Yes, I thought, love can kill you after all. Yes, I think now, love can be that selfish.


When I was 11, and my father came home from sea to a different home, in another part of town, my mother traded her tears for psychotherapy textbooks. From them, we learned how to name our feelings. Are you angry? my mother asked us. How about sad? I shook my head.

In my twenties, in New York, my friends and I made punchlines of our abandonment issues. We knew we had them. And in certain moments, in our therapists’ offices, we could glimpse their true size, like the dark length of a whale passing beneath a boat. It stole my breath—the shock of my own smallness, the strength of the unseen, how easy capsizing could be.

Abandonment. What did that really mean? That I was left? That I had learned to leave myself.


Rilke took his title from the medieval book of hours, a popular Christian devotional text of the Middle Ages, and the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated manuscript. At the university where I teach, the library’s special collection houses remnants of these prayer books, the oldest from 1420 France. One afternoon, I washed my hands and sat at the long wooden table in that cloistered room and laid them out around me.

The first books in creation were inked by hand on animal skins, and sitting with these pages under those soft lights, their textures—delicate as sloughed sheaths of faith—were enough to convince me that books were once bodies, that the bestial and the divine can reside in the same place.

Fruit laden vines bordered some pages, so delicately rendered that they still crept across those milky margins, blushing with pinks and reds six centuries faded. I squinted at the careful calligraphy inside, each letter drawn by the same slow hand—words opening like black buds across the leaves.

Books of hours were among the first books possessed by women, and sometimes the prayers inside even held their owner’s name. I traced those gold edges, the monogram engraved on a cover. How had it felt to touch these first pages? To carry these holy words home, and read your name among them?


Pippi Longstocking was the nine-year-old daughter of a sea captain. She lived alone with her monkey and her horse, to whose needs she tended, along with her own. She even performed repairs on her house—Villa Villkulla. Pippi’s self-sufficiency was written as freedom. Having spent her early years aboard her father’s ship, she brimmed with tales of their adventures. Her father had been lost at sea, and she spun stories of his being made the king of a savage isle.

These ought to have been my favorite stories, but Pippi held no special fascination for me, the actual nine-year-old daughter of a sea captain. Shouldn’t I have wanted superhuman strength? To need no one? To accompany my father on his seafaring adventures? Of course I did. But I knew better.

As a child reader I wanted, as I still do, to find my troubles on the page, and then, hopefully, to see them resolved. Pippi’s problems were already solved. She had lived on the ship. If her self-sufficiency was hard won, it happened off the page. And she was a fool—I knew her father was dead.


I preferred The Velveteen Rabbit, who believes that love has made him Real, until he meets a living rabbit. O, the pain of discovering that a thing is not what you thought it was! Worst of all, to discover this about yourself. When his boy contracts scarlet fever, the rabbit is stuffed in a sack of things to be burned.

My heart broke with the rabbit’s. To be found unloveable was a kind of death—the child’s animal wisdom knows they are tantamount. The rabbit’s despair is so great that he cries a real tear, summoning the nursery fairy, who finally makes him Real.

The nursery fairy is a deus ex machina—she pops out of a flower to perform her magical solution and is nowhere else mentioned in the story—but that never bothered me. The rabbit’s pains were real. Like him, I wanted to be loved, and feared being found unworthy of love. What if my father’s absence was proof of this? In a terrifying wordless place, I harbored a suspicion that it proved I was not Real.


When I learned to read, I read: to myself, to my menagerie of stuffed animals, to my little brother. I started with the familiar ones, the stories in which my parents’ voices first comforted me. Soon, the comfort of my own reading voice replaced theirs.

Even when I did not have an audience, I read—the silent words vibrating my skull, filling the places where grief might have settled. I spent so many waking hours in stories that when I lifted my gaze, the rooms of our house blurred, furniture and faces floating by me, detached from context, like characters in a film whose plot I’d half forgotten.

I remember Ferdinand’s sadness better than I remember my own. Memory renders the grey desolation of the moors in The Secret Garden more precisely than the sad New England sea of my own girlhood. Only by exiling my own grief to those foggy plains could I find and face it.


I had learned to wait for my father, and feel nothing. Nine months in love with this woman, I waited: at baggage claim in the airport, for her to call me back, to end her marriage, to promise me that she would be there. There was no distraction. I could not read. I could not write. I could not sleep. I cried all the time—bottomless, ugly cries that no lover should see. It was a despair so furious that a friend and I named it “Bertha,” after the mad wife of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. My despair was a madwoman who had been locked for years in the attic. Now freed, she set fires. She was an animal. She would not be locked away again. My therapist tells me to love her, I said, but I think I need to kill her.

After ten months, my beloved said enough. She said, I can’t do this anymore. She left, and I could not stop her. I did not sleepwalk, or search my nightswept house. She was not lost at sea, but she was lost to me.


My father doesn’t remember my abuela ever reading to him, though she claimed she did. And I have a really good memory, he says in a small voice. My father needed her stories, the sense they might have made of that life.

Bobby, my dad, was the middle of three sons. He was the altar boy, the one who carried a crumpled brown paper bag of toy soldiers everywhere. In the midst of any chaos, he could sit himself in a corner, open that bag, and disappear into the world of those plastic men. It was a lucky power, as my abuelo was a mean drunk. He tossed my abuela around their house like one of her religious figurines. Sometimes, she broke. Every morning, she said her prayers, hid her bruises, and dressed her boys for school. My abuelo did not stop beating her until the day my father grew big enough to stop him. If you ever hurt her again, he said, I’ll kill you.

At their best, this is what children’s stories do: force logic upon the gruesome facts of our lives. They mirror our troubles, and submit them to a chain of causality. The heroes of children’s stories suffer, but for reward—even if their happy ending is only the restoration of order. Rumpelstiltskin’s queen keeps her first-born child. Hansel and Gretel kill the witch. The Velveteen Rabbit is made Real. Better still, the oldest stories written for children often offer retribution. In Grimm’s original, Rumpelstiltskin is so enraged at having lost that he tears his own body in half. Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cut off their feet, and doves peck out their eyes.

Who knows what plots my young father built, row by row, for those miniature men. Maybe there was no story that could have made sense of that horror.

My father could not speak of my missing, could not name, or make sense of it. But many of my earliest memories are of his reading to me. His favorite story was Ferdinand, and when I look at the drawings of that little bull under his cork tree, I understand why. Like Ferdinand, my father was no fighter. The men from Madrid forced Ferdinand into the ring, and so a man forced my father. But when Ferdinand refused to fight, he was taken home. My father never had that choice; his home was the ring. And the story that saved him was the sea.


My mother’s favorite story of those we read during my childhood was C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In volume five of the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis transports the Pevensie children from a subway in London to the ship of Prince Caspian, with whom they voyage to the eastern edge of the world.

My mother’s captain, her prince, was gone. She waited, and waited for him. Eventually she left him, but leaving was never what she wanted. If he had asked, my mother would have boarded that ship. If she could not be his greatest adventure, she’d have settled for sharing it.

Our favorite stories can be like lovers. Make sense to me, we ask them. Make sense of me. Here, fix these hurting parts. And stories do, sometimes better than our lovers.


When my beloved came back to me, nothing was easy. How could you leave me? I asked her again and again. There was no right answer. There was no way to prove that she would not leave me again. She grew weary of trying. And I grew weary of waiting. I began to understand how a woman could leave the captain she loved.

Jorge Luis Borges, my beloved’s favorite writer, wrote that “To be in love is to create a religion whose god is fallible.” Of course I was still wanting; love had not made me Real, which is to say it had not made me safe. I had believed in something perfect, and it had capsized me. In his Book of Hours, Rilke says, “To each of us you reveal yourself differently: to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.” That is, love doesn’t give us a God, unless we are also willing to become one.

Fighting did not fix us. No amount of talking seemed to help. Finally, in a moment close to hopeless, I asked, Can we read?

One of the first stories we read was Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” in which he depicts the universe as an infinite library. We lay in a bed in my mother’s house, the house on the lake of my childhood. It was the very room in which my mother used to read to us, and the same light off the water that glowed my lover’s face as she read. Curled against her, my pulse slowed. In her voice, Borges lamented “man, the imperfect librarian.” Reminded me that “the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves and enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways…can only be the work of a god.” That though its pages may sometimes appear to me “a mere labyrinth of letters,” I am not meant to comprehend them. I can still believe.

Over the phone, through the computer, into the pixelated darkness of each other’s bedrooms, we began reading each other to sleep. In her absence, I lay in my bed and let those words do what ours could not. Like a thousand anchors molded by her mouth, they moored me.


The Story of Ferdinand was published in 1936, on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, and the tale’s pacifist message provoked divisive reactions—Hitler ordered it burned, and Gandhi named it his favorite book. Ernest Hemingway, that most pious patron of bullfights, was so offended by the story that he penned a rebuttal story, “The Faithful Bull.” Unlike Ferdinand, Hemingway’s bull lived to fight, “and he would fight with deadly seriousness exactly as some people eat or read or go to church.”

Like that of Ferdinand, Hemingway’s story ends with its hero in his glory. Rather than under a cork tree, the Faithfull Bull meets his end in the ring. Ironically, Hemingway’s closing line, “Perhaps we should all be faithful,” could have as easily closed The Story of Ferdinand. Both made the same point: an animal has its nature, and faith to that nature is righteous. They do not promise ease, nor redemption. To the faithful, to those who seek the comforts they were born to, both stories carry only the promise of being recognized for whom you are and taken home.


Do you want to read tonight? has become our refrain. Meaning, I want some comfort, the things that pain me cannot be spoken yet, or will not be soothed by speaking. So we borrow words we can trust.

Any book could be our book of hours, though it makes sense that my beloved and I now read Hemingway’s Dangerous Summer, because in our first year of love we had two dangerous summers. Because we recognize the worship and violence therein as our own. Hemingway’s bullfight is not only a fight—it is a dance, a song, a kind of love—professed as only one body can to another. And every night, we build his story the same way, as we have built our own story: out of breath, from the shapes our mouths make, with the soft hammer of pulse.


Read, she tells me. We are the hotel bed in Tucson, but “Ernesto” is in Barcelona, and Antonio Ordóñez is in the ring. His rival, Luis Miguel, has done work with the muleta, “close enough to give the feeling of the nearness of tragedy within the marvelous security.” The crowd has gone wild for him, but we know he is no match for Antonio, not in Ernesto’s eyes.

My beloved presses her lips to my head as I read, and moves her fingers, lithe banderillas, across my chest. I lean my face into her, and she nudges me back to the book. Read, she repeats.

The Dangerous Summer billows with words like marvelous, perfection, beautiful, magnificent. We laugh at Ernesto’s infatuation with Antonio, and the homoerotic depictions of the fights – his hero driving into the “death hole” over and over again. We laugh at the mentions of his wife, Mary, who appears only to announce an injured toe, a sunburn.

This, Hemingway’s final work, was written as he slid into alcoholic death. Perhaps that explains all the perfections of his matador. Maybe they are the sentimental fixation of a drunk, dying man. Otherwise, perfection is only ever found in God and in love. Hemingway makes Antonio a god, and perhaps he also loved him.

“…close enough to give the feeling of the nearness of tragedy within the marvelous security,” is not Hemingway’s best. It is, however, more accurate a description of our early love than any I have written. We are not unique in this, I know. Still, it is hard to believe that anyone has ever felt such tragedy and security as that in my beloved’s hand when she touches me.

Antonio’s first bull in Barcelona is a good one. The matador swings his cape, “with delicate, calculated slowness just ahead of the bull’s speed.” My beloved slides her hand down my belly, then presses inside my thigh, pulling it open. Antonio circles, riling the bull, and “moving always into him,” as her fingers move over me, lightly, then less lightly. I go quiet. Read, she says.

The bull’s eye never leaves the muleta’s red flash. His burning haunches shine, chest heaving with furious breath, but Antonio never hurries. He molds the bull, “instructing him, and finally making him like it and cooperate.”

Sweat gathers where my lover’s forearm crosses my hip, flexing with the motion of her hand on me. The crowd’s noise swells at each pass as the corrida builds its conclusion, and she dips her mouth into mine. We both make a sound. Then she pulls away. Read.

Antonio, then, is “doing it all to music and keeping it as pure as mathematics and as warm, as exciting and as stirring as love.” It is an impossible faena, and he is doing it. He drives the sword in perfectly and I know, and Hemingway knows, and all the crowd knows that he loves the bull.

The book falls. She does not tell me to read. She tells me, Come for me. And I do. There are no more words. I am the rushing animal she has made me: all marvel, all mathematical magic, and music. I am perfect.


My father is not a captain anymore, not of ships. He has a new wife now, one who will never have to wait for him to come home. He has started to write his own stories. They are fantastic, and they are true: of storms, of pirates, of the father who made his son into hero of a fairy tale, and of my mother – a woman who was a city he built out of love, a world that crumbled under the weight of its own story. She is legend, my mother; she was his Helen, and his Troy. But she was not his happy ending.


My beloved and I are both writers, and like readers, we bend our lives into stories that make sense. Love, also, is building a story to make sense of one’s self. A love story is always part wish, part wick, a novena whose book carries your name, whose plea is to be made Real. It is surely part illusion, but sometimes more real to us than the actual beloved. Real love, I think, is what grows from the ashes of that story, is what we wish for its one survivor, that single, small person.

Our story has taught me that desperation is a selfish passion. But comforted, I can forget myself. In that quiet, I can remember my beloved. I can become the home that she needs.


My first Christmas in the desert, just before bed, my beloved gave me a slim wrapped gift. I tore the paper to reveal a familiar book cover—red with white flowers. The Story of Ferdinand. She smiled. Read to me, she asked.

Once upon a time, I began, and told her of the little bull who did not want to fight. Before I was halfway through, she fell asleep. I kept reading. Her warmth on my shoulder, I turned those smooth pages. Just as I remembered, Ferdinand grew up and was taken to the bullfight by the men from Madrid. I recognized the sweating matador, the furred bumblebee, every drawing’s detail.

Listening to the steady breath of my beloved, I stared at Ferdinand alone in that ring, and felt the familiar ache of my own heart. It isn’t gone. We find ways to comfort one another, and to comfort ourselves. And comfort eases, but it does not erase. We make a home of the body, of the beloved’s body, and of the stories big enough to hold us. In those stories, we find and become that creator.

It is the best we can do. And it is good enough.