Our September 2011 issue picks at the notion of time: the time we have, the time we don’t, and the breaking of all those rules entirely.
Georgina Bruce’s “Convent Geometry” reaches across time and space, through walls, against sickness to bring three people together – to somewhat dire consequences; Ian Donald Keeling’s “Broken” splinters it to reflect one man’s splintered heart; and Jen Volant’s “Jacob and the Jane Riches”, finds what might heal our wounds when time doesn’t do the job.
Poetry from Liz Bourke, David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans, Jacqueline West, and J.C. Runolfson goes back towards the classics, stops off at Mark Twain, and dips forward, into the whole of the universe, and this month’s book reviews cover two books which use historical elements to deadly effect.
We’d like to also take this opportunity to thank our long-time (and founding!) poetry editor, Jaime Lee Moyer, on the occasion of her departure from Ideomancer, and to welcome our new poetry editor, former associate editor Beth Langford, to the department.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Have a great autumn!
Vol. 10 Issue 3
“Convent Geometry” – Georgina Bruce
“Broken” – Ian Donald Keeling
“Jacob and the Jane Riches” – Jen Volant
“Year of Miracles” – Liz Bourke
“The Egg that Exploded” – David C. Kopaska-Merkel and Kendall Evans
“Buying the Muse” – Jacqueline West
“Mark Twain Feels the Storm” – J. C. Runolfson
David Nickle’s Eutopia – Leah Bobet
Chris Wooding’s The Black Lung Captain – Liz Bourke
The only fishing boats Jacob could afford were beached and broken, their hulls listing against the sand with the resignation of things that cannot be fixed. It was these he felt kinship with, not the bobbing vessels that sat whole and spared atop the waters. But a fisherman needed a seaworthy vessel, and Jacob longed to leave the land behind.
A trawlerman with scarred hands saw the money from Jacob’s too-thin wallet and still introduced him to the freshly-painted one-man trawler, her name dark on her hull — Jane Riches. “It’s not an easy life, you know,” said the man. “Every year boats sink and men drown.”
“I have always wanted to fish,” replied Jacob, voice even to hide his grief. As a boy he had loved the seashore, boats bobbing in clear blue waters, the implicit defeat of stuffy buildings by open air. But love had come along and pinned him joyfully to the earth, until the day it did no longer.
The land held their house, lost to the medical bills. The soil nourished the tulips she’d wanted at her funeral, from which he had been conspicuously absent. And six feet beneath the ground lay his wife, further than he could ever reach again. The sea held none of these things, and neither would the man who rode it.
Jacob expected more questions, but instead the fisherman just reached for the money with relief in his eyes. “Oh, she’ll catch what you set out for, don’t you worry,” he said, and was in such a hurry to conclude the deal that Jacob wondered if he had been tricked.
So Jacob became a fisherman. One old man introduced him to the others, showed him how to pilot the trawler, and work the nets and sonar. They went out in darkness and fished their way into day, shouting stories across the water and drinking in the town bar at night. The old-timers told stories of water turned silver by fish, and how that silver faded every season, tarnished into empty seas. “We stay out longer every year,” they said, “to catch enough.”
One hot day two weeks in, Jacob’s lines tangled, his net snagged, and he made a fool of himself yet again. But he didn’t care — for as he stood fumbling on the deck of the Jane Riches, face flushed with embarrassment, his grief sunk untraceable beneath the waters he fished in.
And, in spite of his incompetence, each day his catches grew larger.
One day he brought in the largest haul by far, and the old man shook his head in wonder. “I haven’t seen this many fish in a day’s catch since I was a boy,” he said. Others crossed the dock to see.
One sandy-haired man sneered. “There are as many fish as before, they’re just more cunning,” he said, as if Jacob had insulted him. But the clothes of the men were frayed and over-mended, their boats worn, their nets unfilled. Beneath the belligerence of the sandy-haired man skulked fear.
Jacob climbed aboard other men’s boats, trying to bring his luck with him, but it never worked. One day, when heavy storms to the south had sunk a large trawler and the water was still treacherous with high chop, clumsy as always, he lost his grip on a net and jammed the lines, releasing half the sandy-haired man’s catch. That evening as they pulled into the harbor, in spite of spending half the day off the Jane Riches, Jacob had the most fish of all.
When they made it to the bar he bought everyone a round, and shouted out, “For fish that never get more cunning!” He turned and raised his glass to a silent room of hunched backs. Men stared down at scarred tabletops rather than meet his eyes. Jacob slowly lowered his arm.
He was relieved when the door of the bar admitted a woman he hadn’t seen before, and attention turned to her.
She wore jeans and a plain knit top, and held a sheaf of flyers. Jacob saw the subtle squaring of her shoulders as she took a deep breath. She approached the table nearest the door. The men sitting there watched, one smirking, until he glanced at the flyer she handed him and his face stilled.
“You know the storm yesterday,” she said, with an evenness of voice Jacob recognized. “You see anything wash up on the beach, there’s a number on the bottom. You call me.”
The smirking man looked up at her as if watching someone across a chasm, a person from whose eyes he could not imagine seeing. One of the others removed his baseball cap and mumbled something to her.
She moved on to the next table.
A slow pall followed her, seeping across the bar in a slowly rising tide. Jacob stood and walked by the first table as if heading to the bathroom, and glanced at the flyer.
A picture of a fisherman with a wide smile took up most of the page. The photo had been badly cropped, and it was clear he’d had his arm around a woman, leaning in against him, a thin gold ring gleaming on her finger. Beneath the photo was the man’s weight and height, a description of some clothes, and his name: Bill Anderson. And in bold, the name of Anderson’s trawler. It was the one that had disappeared a few days ago, taken in the storm.
Jacob had time to look up and see the same thin gold ring on the woman’s finger before something inside him snapped open and his own grief choked him, brutal and familiar, then he was outside the too-hot bar and gasping for air, fleeing to the Jane Riches.
They went alone and aimless from harbor as he lost himself in the details of piloting her. After a time he calmed, and discovered they were in the midst of waters that, months before, had been stripped of life by an industrial spill. He stood on deck and considered his inexplicable and persistent success. He checked the sonar, which showed the sea empty for miles. Then he cast his nets and watched them disappear into the dead water.
He pulled them up, heavier than they should be, and brought them onto the deck of the Jane Riches bursting with fish. His usual bycatch of flounder and groundfish was gone – instead there were strange kite-shaped fish he recognized from books he’d bought as Australian bull rays.
He laid his hand on the deck of the Jane Riches in wonder. He had cast his nets for fish, and so she brought him fish.
The next day, he intentionally worked slower than the others. The day after, he cut holes in his own nets. But even as their catches shrank, his remained remarkable. He walked into the bar that evening and stopped, remembering the abrupt silence after his toast, Mrs. Anderson and her fliers. After a moment standing by the coathooks and neon Bud Light sign, he turned and went back out.
He stopped going to the bar, and a few nights later simply stayed on the Jane Riches as the others walked up to town. No one looked back. He slept there, and when the other fishermen returned before dawn to make ready they studiously did not glance his way. He slept on the Jane Riches more and more, and eventually stopped paying rent on his apartment. It was better this way. No risk of friendships that, like tough nets, would drag him onto land where grief waited.
The seasons passed. Fewer men went out together, or there would not be enough of a haul for each. Soon only in pairs. Then alone. And still, with his feet on the deck of the Jane Riches, Jacob brought in huge catches. Men disappeared for longer and longer, finding jobs elsewhere, sometimes returning, until long absences became the norm.
One afternoon, the shore only a thin line on the horizon, Jacob began to pull in his catch, and found his hands shaking. He paced the deck of the Jane Riches, but it did not calm him. He felt restless and pursued, and when he touched his cheeks he found them wet, and did not know whether it was seawater or tears. Even here, with the water all around. Even here, he was no longer safe. Heart beating fast, he returned to harbor, abandoned the Jane Riches, and retreated to the bar.
He took in the scarred tables and the customers seated at them. He was the only fisherman there. The others were gone; the bar emptied of the men who had emptied the ocean.
He had aided that emptying, on the deck of the Jane Riches, so absorbed in his own troubles he had spared barely a thought for this inevitable culmination.
The next day he placed an ad in the paper for the Jane Riches, pricing her far below market. That night in the bar he started with beer, then moved on to whisky, shot after shot of it. If he was not a fisherman he did not know what to do but drown himself in drink.
A few hours in he looked up from his glass, and even with his blurred vision the sight blasted him into an adrenaline-fueled false sobriety. A woman sat at the very end of the bar, in plain and unmemorable clothes, but even all these years later he knew her. She still wore the thin gold ring.
He felt suddenly impassioned – if he could say something, do something, to ease her grief, then perhaps he would be released from his own at last. He stood, wobbled, and stepped forward.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Anderson – ” he began, and she turned to him. There was no recognition in her eyes – only the wall a woman who wants to drink alone keeps between herself and strange men who approach her in bars. “I just wanted to ask whether – well, if they had found, I mean – ”
“No,” she said, “He’s not been found.”
He scrambled for words to fill the silence. “It’s – it’s not fair. Of anyone to happen to, you don’t deserve – ”
Her face softened, and he knew that she saw what he was trying to do, that it wasn’t working, that she forgave him the attempt.
“Hundreds of ships are lost each year,” she said. “There are many men and women like me, and we all deserve to say goodbye to the people – ” she paused, then gazed clear-eyed at him and said, “I want to bury my husband.”
She said it calmly, the words full of mourning and acceptance both. His grief swallowed him, fresh as its first day, knocking him wide open before the woman who faced her loss with the same intense determination with which he avoided his.
He stammered, and he saw the tiredness wash over her, of dealing with this drunken man in a bar, of bearing that loss while refusing to leave her life. He stepped back, knocking over a bar stool. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He stumbled from the bar to the parking lot overlooking the bay, to his old beater of a car. Without thinking, he started it up and drove, leaving the town and the bar and the Jane Riches, trundling slow and drunk along the thankfully empty roads. He got only a mile out before his foot eased from the gas and the car rolled to a stop on the road’s lee. He gripped the steering wheel, tightening first one hand, then the other. There was nowhere to go. The look Mrs. Anderson had given him stuck in his chest like a hook.
And, blade on bone, on the lonely roadside, that look cracked something deep inside him open straight down to the marrow.
He took a careful grip on the wheel, and pulled back onto the road. He drove inland, first with the sloppiness of a drunk, then the aggression of the hungover, then, as the sky began to lighten, the care of the exhausted. He stopped only once, returning with a bundle of flowers, then going on.
He came to her grave as the sun crested the horizon. He kneeled and lay the tulips upon the dirt, then followed them down, sunk his hands into it, pressed his cheek to the grown-over mound he had never visited.
That afternoon he cancelled the ad.
He climbed aboard the Jane Riches and laid his hand against her. “We will never take another fish,” he said. “I would like to cast my nets for something else.”
They left the bay before dawn, small and alone as they made their way past the flashing buoys and out into the empty sea. He sank the nets into the water and waited.
He pulled them up again, and unwrapped the body of Mr. Anderson, now only bits of frayed flesh and bone, the thin gold ring still caught on the corpse’s curled fingers. He cast again, and again, each time the nets returning fuller and heavier.
He pulled the loved and the dead onboard, laying each on the deck, until the boards of the Jane Riches were slick with rot. Then he turned back, and brought them home.
He would go out again tomorrow. As many times as needed. And sweep the seas clean of them all.
Jen resides in the birthplace of roller derby. She works too much, sleeps too little, and attributes her continued existence to coffee, her girlfriend’s cooking, and an elaborate system of checkboxes. She says:
Cursed object stories have always bugged me because they tend to have only two endings: the doom of the protagonist, or throwing the object into the mouth of a volcano. I paired a cursed object that would punish greed and pride with Jacob, who didn’t care for those things at all, who would never come to consider the Jane Riches an antagonist, who would think of her as simply another piece of the world in which he existed. Setting the story in the context of overfishing also let me explore something that’s stuck with me since I read an in-depth report on the problem several years ago: an interview with a trawlerman who talked about how fishing used to involve everyone going out together and shouting from boat to boat as they worked, and its slow evolution as fish stocks shrank and shrank, making it impossible for everyone to go out together, and eventually, to do anything but go out alone. For interested readers, check out the documentary End of the Line, the book Four Fish by Paul Greenberg, and Bottom Feeder by Taras Grescoe. You can also print a pdf booklet or download an awesome smartphone app (free!) on which fish are currently safe to buy/eat, and which are endangered, called the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
When the world broke, did it break for you? Did it break for everybody?
Or did it just break for me?
If it did break for you, I hope…well…I guess you’d know.
My friend Doug and I were planning a road trip across the States. Been talking about it for years but now we were going. He’d just lost his job with the government and my marriage to Nicole had just been buried in ink.
“We’re going now,” Doug had said, “because we might not be here again.”
So while we’re planning the trip we slap a big map of the U.S. up on the wall of his garage. It was one of those tri-colour ones, all white and washed out reds and blues, and we’re mapping out our route in pieces of yellow yarn, generally planning to follow old Route 66.
That’s when the first break happens. I think.
Because suddenly the map seems to twist in the centre and it isn’t quite right anymore. For one thing, the route now skirts around the entire continental United States in a bastardized square and then crisscrosses it like a badge. For another, along the northern border, somewhere just shy of the eastern edge of Montana, the border bulges up into Canada, stretching for a few thousand miles into parts of Manitoba and northern Ontario like a cold front.
Except this isn’t a weather map. It’s still the good old tri-colour. The political kind.
Then there’s another twist — but I can feel this one — and the map’s right back to the way it’s supposed to be and Doug and I are in his garage figuring out where to begin. I freeze, trying to figure out what just happened, but Doug’s just standing there and everything seems fine, everything’s the way it was…
Except that Doug says, “I don’t want to start on the east coast. I want to start at the beginning. We should start with Washington.” And it looks like we’re going to be driving along the top of the U.S. after all.
The world is sunny and bright the day we hop into Doug’s convertible Grand Prix in Seattle. I’m feeling better than I have in months and the cotton-candy puffs of cloud make the ashes of my marriage seem a thousand years away.
“A road trip is like quantum physics,” Doug says as we hit I-90 going east. “You get to be all the people you might have been and still might be in another dimension.”
Doug talks like that sometimes. Done it ever since I’ve known him, which is since kindergarten. Somewhere around the fourth grade for me, sixth grade for him, I finally accepted the fact that Doug was smarter than me and that was just that. Doug was talking metaphysics and life and comparing the two when I was still struggling with long division. Still, he never held his brain against mine, or rolled his eyes when I didn’t quite get it, and so I never told him just how much I hated science.
So there we are, two wounded guys, driving through those crazy trees they have in Washington, hoping the smell of loam can dress our wounds and clean our cares away.
And for me it must have worked, because by the time we cross the mountains and the land opens up east of Great Falls, I realize that the world is big and clean and whole, and I start to relax. Because in a world like that, despite all the yelling and the screaming and that cold, cold room filled with lawyers and muttered recriminations, it couldn’t have all been my fault. It ain’t much, but it’s a hell of a lot better than I had been, and anyway the sky is a wide unbroken blue, full of possibilities. Maybe Doug is right and I can be someone else.
As for Doug, he seems alright, though he doesn’t talk much about his job. Which is understandable since he didn’t really talk about it when he had it. Not cause Doug’s a reticent guy or anything, he just couldn’t.
I don’t know a lot about what Doug did for a living. All I know is that Doug worked for the government, and whatever he did must have been science and it must have been secret enough that they shut him up. Even after it was over.
I also know that at a pit stop just outside of Williston, I catch him staring at a newspaper box with an odd expression on his face. On the front page there’s a headline that reads: “Project Sidestep a Success,” and a bunch of guys in Navy whites standing on an aircraft carrier in front of what looks like a big steel gumball.
“So they did it,” Doug muses and looks into the sky.
This is where the second break happens. And this one I’m sure of.
Because the world cracks like a picture frame — the portrait falling, falling away — and Doug turns to me and says, “I’m going to get some ice cream,” and walks inside the ice cream parlor. Except that Doug is lactose intolerant — like real intolerant — and, even if it is a road trip and we get to be all the other people we never were, Doug still can’t eat ice cream.
But then the world breaks again and Doug emerges from the gas station with a bag of Tostitos.
“I shouldn’t eat these,” he says. “The doctor says I need to cut down on my cholesterol.”
And a chill goes down my spine like that air-conditioning they force into courthouse rooms, because something’s gone wrong, something’s…
Then Doug honks the horn. I hesitate, then buy a newspaper and run back to the Corvette.
Now like I said, I hate science, so I couldn’t begin to understand or explain about time-travel or dimension hopping or whatever it was those Sidestep people were trying to accomplish, although the gist of the article seemed to suggest that they were trying to do neither of exactly those things or maybe it was a little bit of both. Apparently, they succeeded. And when they did, maybe something, somewhere, slipped.
That last part’s mine, not the paper’s.
Cause when the third break happens — there’s a sound now, a thousand distant wine-glasses shattering under a thousand distant heels — Doug and I are somewhere between New Winnipeg and Thunder Bay and a car is approaching us, going the other way.
And Nicole is driving the car.
It hits me like a bucket of bricks, but before I can turn to Doug and scream, “Do you see that? Do you fucking…” the world breaks and the car changes hues and it’s no longer my old friend Doug and me driving down the highway, it’s my old friend Dave and me driving down the highway, which is insane for a whole hell of a lot of reasons, the two most significant being: A) Dave is not Doug, and B) Dave is dead. Died two years after I married Nicole.
But Dave watches the car drive by and turns back to me and the world breaks and Doug says, “The new Falcon’s are nice. I think I’ll get one.” And I’m left clutching the inside of the car-door like it’s the only solid thing in the universe.
Look, it’s not like I don’t know anything about science. I remember in high school they forced us to read this short story about some guy who traveled back in time to hunt dinosaurs but got lazy and stepped on a butterfly and screwed up his future instead. Which is fine, except that I didn’t step on anything, and I haven’t traveled anywhere except across the northern United States in a convertible Thunderbird, not like, say, a bunch of jackoffs in a gigantic steel gumball.
So why the hell did I just see my ex driving across the top of America? And why the hell is a dead guy driving our Eclipse?
Peter and Paul try to explain it all in Sault St. Marie. Who the fuck are Peter and Paul? Peter and Paul are who Doug becomes after the fifth or sixth break — I start to lose track, the world is breaking…
I have no idea who Peter and Paul are. Never met them before in my life. But in the sixteen minutes we spend together in a restaurant painted the exact same god-awful shade of beige that painted the last place I stood with Nicole, Peter and Paul act like they’ve known me for years. Peter reads the paper in awe and talks about how there are billions of universes like and not like this one, all coexisting and overlapping one another like pages in a photograph album. Then he tells me something about a box and a cat that both makes a kind of sense and hurts my head at the same time and I put some serious thought into grabbing the knife by the butter dish and putting it through good ol’ Petey’s eye, just to see if I can make…it…stop.
Then the world breaks and Dave and I leave the restaurant and I’m back to clutching the car-frame.
The breaks happen more often now and I think, maybe, they’re layering on top of each other too, like that photograph album. It’s hard to tell. Everything is breaking, breaking around me, but I’m already broken, so everything’s breaking out from me, I’m breaking the world, the words are broken…
Everything comes to a head at a massive mall just past Sudbury. Doug and I actually drive past the mall before he says, “There was a dealership back there. I want a new convertible.”
So Doug turns the Impala around while I try to crush tensioned steel, and we both drive into the mall as the world breaks with the sound of a billion gold rings clattering to the floor…
Two guys and a girl are standing in the parking lot.
“Hey,” Doug says in surprise. “It’s those two guys we met in Winnipeg.” The two guys are Peter and Paul.
The girl is Nicole.
The world breaks and Dave gets out of the car and greets Peter and Paul. They look a lot younger than they did in the Sault, about twenty-two, same age Dave was when he died. The three of them start chattering away about Thunder Bay and I’d probably be looking for that butter-knife again but for the moment I’ve forgotten about Dave and Doug and Peter and Paul. I’ve forgotten about all the things that are broken in the world.
She’s leaning against a car like I’ve never seen before, sort of a sleek Volkswagen Beetle but with tires like a Hummer. I don’t really look at the car though.
She can’t be much more than eighteen, about the same age I met her. We married young, maybe that’s why it didn’t work, all though god knows we tried for the better part of ten years. The last time I saw her, I mean before this road trip when the world was whole, she had lines of rage etched into her forehead, her lips drawn thin, and her eyes were cold and flat. And sad. If I’m to be completely honest, there was more than a little of the last.
Now she’s just sitting there like the world made new. Her eyes are bright — there’s a dimple in her cheek that I’d forgotten she had. Not a trace of regret scars her skin. She’s eighteen and free, for a while longer, from the weight of time.
She is also, if I am to be completely honest, fucking hot.
She catches me staring. I try to cover by saying, “Nice car.”
Nicole glances down at the car, then up through her lashes, with a little mischievous smile, unfooled.
“Thanks,” she say coyly. “My boyfriend bought it for me.”
I can’t help it. The world is broken, but I smile anyway.
“He’s a lucky man.”
“That’s sweet,” she says, her smile intensifying. Then her eyes twinkle and she bounces off the hood of the car and walks over to me. “You’re sweet,” she says, and kisses me softly on the cheek.
Then the world breaks — but I think something’s different now — and she’s backing away, smiling, and a voice behind me says, “Hey, babe, who’s this?”
I turn. Peter and Paul are gone, as is our car, but Dave’s standing there. Behind the young punk approaching me with the challenging look in his eyes. He looks familiar.
“Just a friend,” Nicole says, sitting back on the hood of the car. The tires are bigger now.
“A friend. Hmph.” The kid stops in front of me. Tries to swagger a little. I try not to laugh.
“Come on, Sweety,” Nicole coos, sliding down from the hood. “Gimmie the keys, we’ll be late for the dance.”
The kid looks me in the eye, thinks about saying something else, then turns, tosses Nicole a set of keys, and gets into the car.
“She was cute.”
Dave steps up beside me, as I watch the Beetle with the big tires stutter towards the exit ramp. Nicole never could drive a standard.
I’m not sure if the next break happens before or after I start running after the car, but the world breaks — and yes, there’s definitely something else going on — and the Beetle with big tires that looks nothing like any car I’ve ever seen becomes more so. It loses a wheel and the better part of its shell. Now it looks like a souped-up tricycle within a cage of roll-bars.
The vehicle stops and a single person gets out. It’s the kid, but he’s not so young anymore, maybe almost thirty.
He looks around, dazed, then back into the empty vehicle. Then at me. “I think I lost someone.”
Yeah, I think. I’m amazed how sorry I feel for him. Yeah, kid…you did.
Then the world breaks again — or maybe it’s not breaking — and it’s just Doug and me.
We’re still in a parking lot, but now we’re in front of a club, not a mall. I can hear the thump-thump-thump of dance music through the walls.
We’re standing in front of a vehicle that amounts to little more than two wheels, an axle, and a couple of seats.
“Now that is a convertible,” Doug whistles in admiration.
I stare at the car. Not a lot to hold onto.
The doors to the club burst open, filling the night with sound. I laugh as I recognize the song. It’s the first song Nicole and I ever danced to.
Two people are pulled into the parking lot with the song. It’s the kid and Nicole, but now they both look like they’re pushing fifty. He’s in some kind of silver Lemay suit and she’s in a white dress, wrapped up in some god-awful rug of fur. They’re both drunk and cackling at the top of their lungs.
“Always should be the one you laaavvvveee!” Nicole wails, careening towards me. “Hold up, sweety,” she yells over her shoulder as the guy stumbles towards the two-wheeler. “Don’t lose me.”
She almost trips, but I catch her arm. She comes up abruptly, stopping about a foot from my face.
“Well, hello,” she says, reeking of gin. She looks down at her arm, then back up at me. “Aren’t you sweet?” Then she kisses me on the cheek.
The noise from the club seems to be getting louder. I’m grinning like a madman and my cheek is tingling. Before Nicole pulls away, I lean in and say, “I love you. And I’m sorry.”
She blinks in surprise, which seems to effect her body like the recoil of a gun. She stumbles back, then catches herself and grins.
“Sweety, you don’t have to apologize for anything.”
I think I’d like to say something else, but it’s definitely getting louder and I don’t think it’s the club. Then the final break happens with a glow like an infinite number of golden threads coming together and the sound of shattered glass falling, falling up from the floor…
And the last thing I see are Nicole’s fifty-year-old dimples and then Dave, calling my name, and tossing a set of car keys at me as he mashes into a sea of gold…
Then it’s just me. In a hallway, painted a god-awful shade of beige. I turn…
Nicole’s standing behind me, by the door to the courtroom. Her expression is set and flat.
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her voice is as cold as her posture. There is not one shred of apology in her eyes.
Her last words. The last time, I’d turned and stalked away, hearing only the tone, not seeing the look behind her eyes. This time…
Somewhere out there, in the layers, there is a girl, leaning against a car, a dimple in her left cheek. And there’s an older woman, in a white dress, and dimples…
I step forward. “It’s okay,” I say, taking her hands in mine. Her eyes flinch, but she doesn’t step back.
“You don’t have to apologize for anything.”
Her face remains set for a moment, then something in it relaxes and falls away.
“I…” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say again. I give her hands a gentle squeeze. “Really.”
I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. A final squeeze of her hands. Then I turn and leave the courthouse.
Outside, Dave’s waiting for me behind the wheel of a red convertible.
I think it’s new.
Ian Donald Keeling is an odd, loud little man who acts a little, writes a little, and suffers from delusions of grandeur whenever he can. As a poet, he has won poetry slams and been published in various lit magazines including Grain and Queen’s Quarterly. His speculative fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy and On Spec. He recently finished his first novel, BELIEVE. He says:
Ah, “Broken” once called “Blur”. I have a soft spot for this story. As you may be able to tell, it started as a dream (I know, terrible isn’t it?). In the first drafts, it was a lot more weird and based on idea. The car actually broke down until the protagonist was riding down a broken highway on a single wheel like those old BC cartoon strips. The story also had a lot of writing experiments in it — at one point, I kept switching tenses in order to literally “break” the story, but I couldn’t quite get it to work. Finally, after many drafts and a great workshop at Anticipation, I asked the question every writer should ask: What’s the story? And to me, it’s about a guy whose world is breaking up A) with the weird sci-fi backdrop, but more importantly B) with his marriage. So I made it far more character based, which is what I prefer anyway, and the whole thing finally clicked. Or at least, I hope it did. Cheers.
Sister Lumiere found her in the kitchen garden, curled up on the bare earth. Her skin was prickled with gooseflesh, and she cried out when Sister Lumiere picked her up and carried her inside. She spoke some words and Lumiere nodded, but I did not understand what was said.
The woman was shapeless, narrow, loose and weathered. She had no breasts, only tender-looking scars on her chest, and there was a thick purplish weal between her pubis and her navel. The hair on her head was thin, cut short and plastered to her scalp. She looked ill. Her skin was pink and whitish yellow, burning scarlet on her cheeks.
Stealing looks is just the same as stealing pennies. I turned away, mindful of the woman’s modesty. But she didn’t seem angry or ashamed. Her eyes were closed. Her breath was ragged, and she shook with cold. I covered her in blankets and quilts, heaping them over her, wrapping them around her until she was completely enclosed. Her breath clouded in the air, and steam rose from my vestments where the morning dew had fallen. It is cold in the priory, too cold for any but nuns to endure.
“She is not from here, I think,” said Lumiere.
I could not remember the last time we had spoken in the daylight.
“What shall we do?” I asked.
“What is there to do Nocturna? You saw yourself. She fell from the sky into our keeping.”
“Are we to keep her, then?”
Sister Lumiere kept eye contact with me for a long while. Her icy white eyes dazzled me. “I do not know,” she said at last. She gave permission to make a small fire in the room, so that we would both be warm. She had seen snow in the sky.
When night came, Lumiere went to sit with the woman in her cell. I do not know what transpired between them in those hours. It was difficult for us to understand the woman, because her German was so strange and foreign-sounding. But perhaps she and Lumiere found a way to communicate better. Or perhaps Lumiere just wanted to stay close by.
It was the first time I had lain in a bed by myself, and I found it impossible to sleep without Lumiere’s broad body warming against mine, her flank on mine, my face resting on the flesh of her shoulder. I would rather have gone to the kennel and slept with the dogs than stay on my own with no body near mine.
When the strange woman opened her eyes the next early morning, we were there to receive her and give blessings and prayers. Lumiere unwrapped her from the cocoon and gave her a clean wool dress to wear. She held her hands and pushed her arms into the sleeves, like she was a little girl.
It did snow, as Lumiere had predicted, early that morning. Flakes as big as goose down fell on the garden, landed on the piercing spires of the priory, and floated through the open roof of the chapel. Cold white fingers hung over all the stone windows. It covered all our ruins and all our good works. Lumiere found our boots out from the closet and we took turns tending to the hens and goats in the barn. The woman walked in the garden, round and round the wall, brushing her fingers through the snow.
“There’s no gate,” she said in her stiff German. She was standing in the kitchen doorway, half her body still out in the falling snow. “I can’t find the way out.”
Lumiere smiled at her, and briefly touched her hand. But the woman flinched and strode away. Her movements shimmered with violence, a silver-white shadow she cast all around her. She was a hard person to understand, Lumiere said, but I didn’t know, didn’t have any comparison. I couldn’t remember other people, except vaguely; their faces receded into the distant past. They seemed to be all the same, all their features like Lumiere’s. But why should I remember them at all? My earliest memory was of watching the wall being built around us, when we came here to live. It took them a year, and then we never again saw a foreign hand or eye raised above the bricks, or heard voices from behind the wall. I did not miss them. Lumiere was everything to me: mother, playmate, sister, friend, companion, nurse. And God was also always with us.
The woman, whose name was Joan, did not belong here. Her dreams disturbed the priory. The hens stopped laying. Owls perched high on the wall, orange eyes burning through the dark, unwilling to swoop and pierce the mice and shrews in the garden. Even the dogs would not go near her, and cowered from her when she went past, crying with their tails between their legs, although she showed no interest in them one way or another. The snow thickened and her footsteps flattened it, in a narrow path she made under the wall. She walked around the perimeter at least once every day. It took her an hour and a half to do the circuit, brushing her fingers along the brick so two icy lines became grooved in the snow on the wall.
Lumiere brought her fruit to eat and gave her books from the library, books that I myself had not been allowed to see. Joan read all the time, an apple in one hand, book in the other. She ignored me, mostly, but she called for Lumiere several times a day, calling her name out loud so it rang through the walls. No one had ever raised their voice here before. Lumiere and Joan spent hours with their heads bent over books, whispering and discussing, whilst I prayed and worked, worked and prayed, and at night, because I still could not sleep alone, I walked around the priory and around the wall. One of the dogs, Florian, took to following me. Perhaps he enjoyed the exercise, or the companionship. When I stood still, he pressed his head against my leg and I patted him and stroked his ears. This was all the touch I shared in several weeks.
Lumiere spoke to me one afternoon as I was cooking soup. Florian sat at my feet, as was usual. He never went far from me anymore. Lumiere crouched and rubbed the dog’s neck, so when I looked down, it was as though she was kneeling before me. She looked back at me with her white eyes, brightened by tears, and before I could speak, put her arms around my knees and pushed her face into my skirts. She didn’t move at all for several moments. Florian nosed his way into the embrace, too, and I pushed neither away. I wanted to stir the soup, but I dared not disturb Lumiere. After a while, she pulled away from me and sat, with a deep sigh, at the table.
“You are good, Nocturna,” she said. “You are so good. I am afraid, and you are good.”
I did not know what she was speaking of. The soup was thickening and the colour grew deep as I stirred.
“What must you be thinking? I fear that I have done wrong. Are you not afraid?” Florian put his head in Lumiere’s lap, and she absently stroked his ears.
“I’m not afraid,” I said. “I have never had cause to be afraid, and you have never taught me to be so. I will pray for you, Lumiere, if you are frightened. God will comfort us.”
Lumiere nodded. “You are very good, sister.”
I was not good. But I had never known anything of the world outside the priory, and I had never known anything except Sister Lumiere, the dogs, the garden, prayers and work, for all my years. I knew that Joan was something new, something the sky had birthed into our world; I knew she made me lonely by taking my sister from me and reading books that were meant to be kept closed. But I was not afraid of her. For all things come from God and in my heart I never feared anything sent by Him, nor questioned it either.
Lumiere said I should stay with Joan that night. Since that first time, I had never spent more than a few moments alone with her, but I was not frightened.
After supper I went to Joan’s cell, and sat in the wooden chair as she paced slowly up and down the room. Each step looked like it cost her in pain, like she was out of her element; perhaps the cold had got into her bones. She could have stopped walking at any time, but she kept on a long while into the night. She was praying, also. Her hands fluttered from forehead to chest and sternum, and she also knelt with her head bowed for a time. She prayed, I think, in her own language, which I did not understand, but when she addressed me, it was in a broken German that was a little easier for me to follow. She had learned much from Lumiere.
When the moon rose, she washed in plain water and put on a long nightdress. Lumiere came in then, and the two women hugged. Like sisters, or soldiers.
“Let’s pray together,” said Lumiere.
She knelt at the side of Joan’s bed, and they silently prayed.
When Lumiere left the room, I took up my bible and read to myself. I was aware of Joan’s eyes upon me, and I looked over to her.
“Would you like me to blow out the candle?”
She shook her head, very faintly. “I want to go home.”
“I cannot help you,” I said.
“You could leave,” said Joan. “We both could. Don’t you want to leave?”
“Leave?” A thought like this had never crossed my mind. Now, suddenly, it seemed strange that I had never thought it. Was my world really so complete that I wanted for nothing outside it?
Joan laughed. “You have never thought of it.” She was sitting up in the bed, her short thin hair sticking out around her head like a halo.
“Please don’t speak anymore. Sleep now.” I opened my bible again, and tried to focus on the Latin words, so small and difficult in the candlelight. I did not look up the next time Joan spoke.
“I’m ill. I need drugs. I have to go back. Did you hear that, Sister Nocturna? Cancer. I have cancer.”
I pretended that I did not hear her. I didn’t understand her words.
“I don’t understand you,” I said, leaning forward and speaking slowly. “You do not make sense. What do you want from me? What do you want?”
Joan reached out and grabbed my hand in both of hers. “I want to go! I want to leave here. She knows! That is why she left you here tonight.”
“I cannot help you,” I said, wriggling my hand out of her grasp.
“Open the window,” she said. “Please. You have the key. Open it.”
I imagined Lumiere, sleeping in our bed, untroubled by this madwoman, and felt a burst of anger. I opened my mouth to let it out, a short hot sigh. The woman in the bed made an answering sound, and then she was silent. After a long while, I closed my eyes.
Please understand. Since that time I have read all of those books. I have held the hands of others who were possessed in this way, those who Lumiere brought to us. I speak only to inform. Let us bend our heads in prayer.
I am silver and white, like my mother. I move like a car, fast and burning, burning on a tarmac black strip bisecting the orange horizon. I dream of motorways, of fast food restaurants, of sex in sweaty bedrooms; dreams piled one on top of another like carpets in a bazaar. And last night I dreamt of eggs breaking in a pan, of butter splashing over eggs. Pain au chocolate dipped in hot coffee, on a cold morning, in a warm bed, in winter, in Paris. Paris! Standing with Wolfgang at the open window, my arms around his waist, my breasts pressed against his back. Even in my dream, I knew his heart was empty. Then I woke up, and there was frost on the blanket and the two nuns were standing over me with their hands folded. I screamed bloody murder.
I demanded that they give me a pen and paper and tell me what day it is. I screamed for doctors, for drugs, for a morphine drip, a cigarette, but they only clutched at my hands and muttered, and I didn’t understand anything. I want them to know that I am ill. I should be in hospital, under the best possible medical care because inside I am all silver and white, glistening, sticky, miraculous. The doctors found an egg of cancer sitting on my spine. They said it was everywhere, eggs and spawn, the gross white cancer curd. I’m riddled with it; and it has riddled me. It’s in my brain, I’m sure. Either that or I am dead.
But if I am dead. If I died. Would I remember? You would think that I would know. Nothing is different. My breasts have not come back. I still have the purple scar that ropes up my belly, and I still have the pain in my head. I convince myself that I am dead, that I’m a ghost. I can manage it quite well. But then one of them brings me a boiled egg on a spoon, and it tastes thick and fatty, with a yolk so rich it’s almost red. The snow is yellow where the dogs have pissed on it. I am freezing in this tiny room, and I’m writing on thick paper with an ink pen, though my hands are shaking with cold. All of these things feel very much alive to me.
There are two nuns: Sister Lumiere and Sister Nocturna. When I was at school the nuns were all called Michael and Joseph and Thomas, men’s names. Their habits are woollen, scratchy, brown and beige, not the sharp raven-black of the convent. Lumiere is the eldest, and seems to be in charge, but Nocturna is the more solemn. She is silent. She has the nun’s glide, that’s what we used to call it, when you couldn’t hear them coming up behind you. But one of the dogs loves her, and follows behind her, and you can hear its feet skittering on the stone. Lumiere wants to talk to me all the time. She chatters away, not that I understand much of what she says. She is not very old, I think, although it’s hard to tell. Her face is wide and simple, but her eyes are eerie, irises so pale that they seem almost white. She is broad but not fat, tall but not graceful. I long to see under her wimple, to know if her hair is grey or black.
They treat me like a pet, and let me do all I wish, except leave. I walked about the grounds today. The wall goes all around, and it is so high, it makes you sick trying to see the top of it. There must be a door somewhere, a gate, a gap in the wall. I can’t find it. Sister Nocturna, the mean-looking one, watches me the whole time. She always has her eyes on me, but she does not speak.
I demanded that Lumiere let me use the telephone. I implored her, and begged her, sinking to my knees on the stone floor. A telephone, a mobile, internet, a fax machine. Anything. God help me, I cried. Help me. But she just watched, and then, when I was exhausted and sobbing on the floor, she crouched and took my hand in hers, stroking my fingers. No one has touched me gently in such a long time. And she looked at me in wonderment and said my name over and over. But all I could think was, why isn’t there a telephone? Everyone has a telephone.
There are three numbers I know off by heart. The number of the house where I grew up. The reception desk at St. Anne’s. Wolfgang’s number. If I ever found the phone, I would call my mother’s house, stir the dust with the ringing bell, ringing on the small particle of hope and unreason inside me, the idea that she might answer. And Wolfgang, the heart of my heart, the hole in my heart, Wolfgang the betrayer. I would telephone him and say, I am dead. I am so dead right now.
Lumiere let me have some books from the library. I saw Sister Nocturna watching as I carried them back to my cell. She is jealous. I don’t think she is allowed into the library. But I don’t care about her. She has a mean face and never smiles or speaks.
But the books, the unintelligible books. They don’t make sense. They are in German and Latin and French, languages I learned at school, but I can’t make head or tail of them now. I spoke German with Wolfgang every day for a year, but I hardly recognise a single word on a page. I want to throw all the books out of the window and watch them fly down over the garden like birds, pages fluttering. I want to see Nocturna’s face when her precious books fly around her head and dive into the compost heap!
There’s a dictionary in the library, French to German. Every single word I read has to be painstakingly levered and twisted and hobbled into some kind of meaning. It is not like any kind of reading I’ve ever done before. One good thing is that it absorbs me. It stops me thinking about anything else. I don’t want to think about anything else. I can’t remember anything. When I try to think back, think myself from the hospital ward to this cold prison, I can’t. It’s like snow, mental snow, a blizzard. My brain is surrounded by jagged edges, like a drawing made by a lunatic.
I am having headaches again. The cancer is in my brain. I know it. I know it is.
When Lumiere came today, she heard my confession. I made her, though she did not understand what it was meant to be for. I said, how can you be a Catholic and not know about confession? I made her sit still and listen. I don’t think she is the same kind of Catholic as I am. There are no Christs here, no martyrs, no bleeding hearts, no blue Marys.
I confessed that she reminds me of my mother. My silver-white mother. I told her how cancer was the legacy; the gift passed down. How, when my mother died, she pressed it into my hand, and curled my fingers around it, and kissed my fingers. Then she closed her eyes, and some time later, she died, and I opened my fist to see what she had bequeathed me.
I confessed other things, too. To betrayal, and to shame, those lovers’ gifts. I confessed to loneliness, the eggshell around my soul that made me so breakable. I even confessed to my joy, which is secret; a small shiny wooden nut lodged somewhere in the back of my throat.
It was a long time of talking, and very little was understood. All that passed between us were yet more words, ricocheting off high walls neither of us could breach. But it felt good to speak, to say all those things aloud. And afterwards, when I had said everything I wanted to say, Lumiere spoke. Her words meant little to me, but her voice filled me up with knowing. She spoke for a long time and with great passion. I understood that I would die, and I saw that I was loved and honoured here, in this place of passing through.
Lumiere was very interested in the confession, and later she showed me a passage in one of her books. I’ve been translating it all afternoon but I can’t understand it. Even if I can work out the words, they don’t fit together. I can’t see how they can be sentences.
Fly my angles (angels?) my rivers – teardrops?
But then there is this: I the fiery life of divine wisdom I ignite the beauty of the plains I sparkle the waters I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars.
If she lets me go tonight, I’ll keep these words as a souvenir.
It snowed all winter and nobody had any secrets from me. I knew when Nocturna walked from the kitchen to the barn, and I stood in her footprints under the library window. I followed Joan around and around the wall. Florian left big paw prints in zigzags all over the garden. And in the afternoon, new snow covered the old, and all night our rooms were lit grey and pink by the sky.
I was the only one with secrets. I hung them around my neck, under my black wool dress. Keys to the library. Of course I knew that Nocturna would never look at anything that was forbidden to her. I trusted her. But when Joan came, everything was different. I did not know how things might change, what might be said, what confidences betrayed. So I put the keys on a piece of string around my neck. They jangled when I walked.
We still prayed in the ruined chapel, in the deep snow, and when we knelt, the cold got into our knees. We brought rough wool blankets to pad underneath us, but still, the hours of prayer were long and frozen; dawn pinking the sky from a long way off, our hands shaking as we silently recited the litanies and verses. Nocturna’s face so thin and serious, so full of belief. That was one thing I envied her. She never questioned. How could she? Nocturna was a tithe. The tenth child, given to the church, as is the custom. She was given to me, her head shorn, and her face stained with tears, and I was but thirteen years old myself. This garden, our universe, seemed big enough then.
I did not share Nocturna’s convictions, even though I had taught them to her. I had not dared to do otherwise, to break the vows I’d made to them outside the wall. How could I have inflicted my own weaknesses upon her? I taught her the litanies and the transcendental prayers and the silent music. I read the bible with her, studied Latin and French, and showed her how to milk the goats and pluck the fowl, dig in for potatoes, shear the sheep and spin their wool. If anyone loved Nocturna, it was not God, but me.
My child, my heart. Nocturna the tithe. She was also a punishment. A gift, and a burden. She was a penance for me, for my crimes.
The frozen mornings of that winter saw me praying not to the glory of God, but praying nonetheless. I recited verses from the Books of Angles, and Convent Geometry and the Mother Equations. I read them over and over until I knew by heart the shapes of the numbers. When I dozed off in the little wooden chair in Joan’s cell, I dreamed I was drifting through fractallised constellations. Everywhere I touched would bloom out in endless replication, looping into caverns and bulbs and beehives and sweeping arches and curves and petals. I felt I could tapestry them. I thought about tapestries as I spun thread in the early afternoons while Nocturna worked and Joan read and wrote. I wanted brighter colours than our vegetable dyes could produce. I wanted an orange bright as sun, a peacock blue, a moon silver grey. Not these washed out muddy greens and blood reds. They were too rustic for my imagination. But I knew my verses, and I kept making the pictures in my mind as I spun and weaved the thread for our new winter dresses.
Joan disappointed me. She could not understand the verses, though she pored over them every afternoon, when the light was good. I had felt that she must know all their secrets already, but perhaps they really meant nothing to her. She didn’t know what she was looking for. And every night, when I locked the library before going to her cell, I thought of her, locked out of knowledge, an outcast. Perhaps that is why I loved her, too. I am an outcast and a criminal. I was once before, a long time ago, and now I am again.
She made me hear her confession. I had to pretend to be God, and she was a sinner; a morbid game and I felt uncomfortable playing it. Her German was odd and bright, full of words and rhythms I had never heard before. It was hard to listen to her, but not impossible to understand. She told me a long story about a person called Wolfgang.
“How strange,” I said. “That is my brother’s name. Or it was. I do not know if he lives.”
The story went that Joan and Wolfgang were lovers, but Wolfgang left her when she became ill, and a demon took her breasts and womb.
“He was weak,” said Joan. “Do you understand? He was so weak, and such a stupid man. The last time I saw him was in Paris, before my first operation. He asked me to marry him. Then he went to bring us breakfast, and he didn’t come back. He telephoned me from Nantes the next day, saying he was sorry. Sorry! As if that made it alright.”
I didn’t understand the point of the story, I admit. But somehow her words made an impression on me. I knew a Paris, a Nantes, even if only from books. I thought I could see connections, that her words were keys twisting in a lock, if only I could find the right lock to hold up to her.
“Do you know of The Book of Angles?” I asked. “It says there are universes all separated by only a film of flesh, thinner than the skin of an egg yolk.”
“No,” said Joan. “I do not want an egg.”
She made it so difficult to talk to her, but I persisted. “It says there are verses that can prick the skin between worlds. Numbers. And things can come through… People. Joan, do you understand? I brought you here. I made it possible. I found the verses.”
Joan just shook her head. After a while she left the cell, and I saw her walking in the garden, her boots stamping down on the new snow. Incomprehension made Joan frustrated. Like a child, she couldn’t handle her lack of ability, and she had no patience for learning. One day, she threw Convent Geometry across the room at me. It glanced off my arm, and did not hurt, but I gave her a reproachful look.
She stared back at me. “Do you realise that I am dying?”
“I’m sure you are not,” I said. I picked up the book and put it on the small table next to the bed.
“I have cancer, you stupid, fucking, woman.” Her face glowed, and her hands clenched into fists.
“Please try to learn the verses,” I said, not understanding her words exactly, but comprehending the violence in them. “Perhaps if you went back to the start again. You have improved.”
“No,” she said. “No, no, no, no, no. I want to go now. Let me go.” She started crying, her face in her hands. I wanted to soothe her, but I dared not touch her.
I have been a very wicked woman. They will call me a witch. They will hold me over the flames and when they do, I will remember Joan’s tears falling and freezing on the stone floor of her cell. The hard little bumps of ice all around her feet.
That night, I couldn’t bear it anymore, and I asked Nocturna to stay with her instead. In the morning she was gone.
There were books in Joan’s cell that Lumiere had given her to read. Ungodly books. Magickal books. Convent Geometry. My first thought was to burn them, to create a pyre in the garden and throw them on, and to wrestle Lumiere on top of it.
“I prayed for us,” Lumiere told me. “I made the sky give us a child.”
“You did witchcraft,” I said. She had done this here, in our heart of hearts, our home. I could not look at her. I took her woollen dress from her and left her naked in the chapel, in the snow, whilst I walked under the wall, not knowing what I was to do. I prayed so hard, God must have heard me, but no answer came. And then I realised that this was to behave exactly like Joan, trailing hands around the wall, searching for a way out.
This was not Lumiere’s home, but her prison. She had been sent here for her punishment. I heard the whole story from her that night, laced with tears and angry, bitter recriminations. She had not been a tithe, like she had told me. She was a criminal. This place, our world, our home, was her punishment. And she told me something else, a thing I had never suspected: that there was a door. There was a way in and a way out, which the builders had made when they built the wall. Lumiere had no idea if anyone outside knew of it. She said she thought it was a mistake, that it had been left open, and never sealed. She had never dared to try it at first, fearing the outsiders and the pilgrims who no doubt gathered outside the wall. Then later she did not want to go, she said, for we were together in our home, and safe. The door was underneath the floor in the barn, a very narrow, long tunnel that led to the outside world. I went to the barn to look for myself. I had to sweep away a lot of shit and mud before I found the hole, and then it seemed too narrow for a person to crawl down into. The thought of it made me feel claustrophobic, but also intensely curious.
And by this, Lumiere gave me the choice to leave or to send her away.
This I thought about for many long weeks. I prayed hard to God, asking for guidance. The truth was that the thought of leaving here terrified me, as did the thought of being left here alone.
It was my duty to punish Lumiere. For if I did not do it, who else would? We have been alone in this world. I would not trust another to deal fairly with this matter. For if I left here, they would surely come inside and burn her. And if she left, they would grab her by the scruff of her neck and throw her twisting onto the flames. Her books would be burned, and her notebooks also. Her bed would be put to fire, her clothes, her cats.
She was a criminal, but also my mother. When I tried to think of that woman who had tithed me to the Order, I could not call her my mother, my heart, my love. Lumiere was all of this to me. I would not choose to have her burn.
I made a thick cement of dung and water, and poured bucket after bucket into the hole underneath the barn. Lumiere watched me do it, sitting in the corner with her hands folded around a bible. She did not protest any of my decisions, and even when I lifted the chain of keys from around her neck and put it around my own, she said nothing, only reached out and kissed my hand.
And so I came to my peace with Lumiere.
When I woke up in hospital it was dark, and I only knew by smell that I had landed in St. Anne’s and not back at the priory. The sour bleach tang made me feel like vomiting, but my mouth and nose were packed with tubes, and I could hardly move, so in panic I thumped the side of my bed with my fist until a nurse came and helped me. She told me I had been in a coma, that I had gone straight from theatre to the ward, and never stirred for nearly a week.
But I remembered running in the dark. The dogs barking from the kennel, Florian crying, always so scared of being alone. The running was awkward, a forgotten thing. I forced myself to remember my body, hold my head up, shoulders down, stomach muscles tight. I straightened my hips, pushed them forward a little; that made my thigh muscles tense and I ran faster. My feet burned on the frozen snow, leaving wet footprints across the garden. And then I forgot I was running.
Great strides that stretched the muscles of my thighs; strides that turned into leaps, balletic leaps from foot to foot. And then, in mid-air, mid-leap, I kicked my legs wildly, like treading water. I was floating and then I just scissored upwards, pulling the sky back with my palms, like pushing myself through water. There is no secret, no mystery to it. It is just like swimming.
A determined breaststroke took me up over the wall, and over and above the priory, shadowy and white with snow. I wondered if they were awake yet, saying the first morning prayers. I flew away from the wall, over the field towards the mountains. Light broke over the sky, casting everything in shades of blue and grey. Blue hills far away, lilac heather brushed over blue hills, frosted heather, icy lilac. All around, nothing but hills and sky, sky and grass, grass and heather.
Two birds as big as eagles were riding the thermals. They were bigger than me, the colour of fire, catching the morning sun in their wings. I swam away a little, awed by their burning presence, but they flew back towards me, dragging me into their current, their undertow, warm updrafts and swells, and I laughed, and swooped and dived with them in the fresh blue air.
I flew with them until I was too tired to keep myself in the air, and then I fell to sleep in my own bed.
So I am here again.
I wanted to come back, so badly. But now I am here I am sorry. You’re no good to anyone when you’re dying. The nurses pity for me. The young ones sit with me for hours, and try to be kind. Where is your family? Can I call anyone for you? But the older nurses tut, and whisper in the young ones’ ears. They remember my mother. How alike we are, our insides so glistening and silver-white, our heads so smooth, cheeks so sunken.
Everything is taken care of. My mother’s house has been sold to strangers, and the phone number no longer rings there, but gives back a flat blue tone when I call. My clothes have been taken away to charity shops, where they will hang with the other old lady clothes, smelling of lavender and cats and plastic carrier bags. The funeral is paid for, and if I could afford it, I would hire mourners to come and wail as the cheap plywood coffin slides through the red curtains into the flames.
Now there is nothing left but to wait. It is so hard to die. It takes all of one’s strength and commitment. I am not disciplined, and never was. Memories divert me, memories of Paris, and of the priory, and of my mother. If we had not hosted this riddling guest, perhaps we would have known other, better, longer lives.
The nurses read to me, as my eyes get tired easily now. I am very specific in my wants. No stories, no romances or thrilling tales. I make them read physics books, maths books, geometry to me. They go to the library in their lunch breaks and bring back thick tomes on quantum mechanics. I tell them not to skip anything, to make sure to read out the numbers and describe all the equations. I don’t understand anything at all, but after a while I drift into the unknowingness of it, and I remember Lumiere’s voice, reading from the impossible books in her impenetrable German. I feel a chill and think that when I open my eyes I will see the nuns standing over me with their hands folded, and I will rise from the bed in my scratchy woollen dress and go out into the snowy garden. I keep my eyes closed tight, to live in that moment as long as possible. When I was there, all I had wanted was to leave, to go back to ‘normality’ – but now that place has gone, I feel bereft and long to return.
Perhaps if I close my eyes and concentrate very hard, I can go back there one more time. It is the only thing I dare to hope for. You think you understand everything about life, the shortness and futility of it. The way your body clogs up with cancer. The endless ringing of an unanswered telephone.
But there is a great mystery that exists beyond you, and it is full of meaning and power.
I the fiery life of divine wisdom I ignite the beauty of the plains I sparkle the waters I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars.
Sometimes when the nurses read to me I fall asleep and feel myself lifting up out of my body. I see the firebirds high above me, and I so want to fly again, to dart through the flimsy quivering sheath between worlds. My whole body stings with the memory of it. That is what I will miss most of all about being alive. The flying.
I was a novice once more, a poor servant of God and of the priory. I spun thread and grew vegetables and prayed for forgiveness. I prayed for hours and days, in the snow and rain. It did not matter. Nocturna compelled me. She did not care if I lived or died, but she did not want me to die a sinner.
One morning I left the chapel to find Nocturna in the garden. She had built a pyre and it was crackling with flames. I dared not ask what she was intending to burn. By this time I was scared of her.
Later she told me that after reading the books, all my books, she burned them on the pyre, so that the knowledge would die with us here. I cried very hard that night, and she curled around me in bed to comfort me, but it was too late, for I hated her. Better to die than to live in this prison without even a window into the rest of the universe.
But then Joan returned. She landed in the night, and set the dogs howling. I knew it was her. I just knew. And I hurried from my bed, pulling on my woollen overdress, not caring if I disturbed Nocturna, who had not stirred at all. I ran to the garden and found Joan crouched amongst the cabbages. She smiled up at me and sprang into my arms, hugging me ferociously, and I cried. My tears pooled in the hollow made where her collarbone jutted out.
Joan, my child. My proof.
I wrapped her in blankets and took her to the little cell where she had stayed before.
“I’m dying,” said Joan. “But it’s all right. It’s all right.”
I stayed with her, sleeping in the wooden chair in her cell. Nocturna treated her as if she were invisible, a ghost, though she allowed her to eat and wander around, as long as she stayed away from Florian, who now slept on top of Nocturna’s bed, from whence I understood I was banished forever. But Joan did not last long. Like a cut flower, she faded. One morning I woke up, my neck stiff from sleeping awkwardly on the wooden chair. The cell was empty. I understood that she would not return.
For a long time I mourned her. I grieved and I said prayers, real holy prayers for her soul. I prayed that she was flying, that she was free. But then the time for grieving was over. She would not be the last visitor here, I felt sure. I tucked my hands into my sleeves and went about my work and my prayers. I was honest, and waited for them to come.
Florian died last winter. He was old, but I had forgotten that. We were suited, he and I, each passive in our own way, each methodical in our devotion.
Sometimes I feel that I must account for what is lost to us. I catch glimpses of Lumiere’s smile, when she walks around the garden with a visitor, but she never looks at me now. She is so happy; her work is a great success. She has opened a door from our world into another, like it said in her terrible books, and the visitors who come are all like Joan, frail and full of wonder.
She believes that I would stop her, if only I could. That I would sew up the door and imprison her in this place. But I wish only for her salvation. I wish for the past to come back, when we lived sweetly alone together, and it was holy and good.
The cabbages grow limp, the hens rarely lay. I do my best but there is too much work. I noticed that Lumiere’s winter dress is full of holes. I eat very little and pray more than ever.
There is a prayer for those who come quietly, and one for those who come with great commotion. There is a prayer for those who disturb our peace. May your light flicker and fade from our sight. May we be given back our world.
Many of my stories start with a strange image or idea. In this case, it was two nuns finding a naked woman in their garden! Over the course of a year or so, I worked out their stories. I became fascinated by all three women, and how their relationships with each other developed and fell apart. To me, they always had very distinct personalities and voices. I have a special sympathy for Nocturna, who suffers so much in trying to keep her life complete and intact. The women in this story face struggles that feel very real to me.
The year I began
to believe in miracles
snow fell in summer
stung hail from roofs
to lie uneven
on the pebbles
and from the gorse-laden hill
The year I began
and from the white-stained station
The breath of ghosts and the mists
All these I remember,
Only let me not forget
Liz Bourke was born in Dublin, Ireland, where she still resides. She is presently reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College Dublin.
I started writing this poem in December 2010. It’s dark in December at these latitudes, and at that time, Dublin was freezing its bloody cobbles off under a layer of snow. (We almost never get snow in Dublin, much less weather so cold that the snow sticks for whole weeks at a time.) One evening, as I was riding the train home from college, I noticed that the Royal Canal had frozen over. Everything – the poem entire – proceeded from that image of midwinter sun reflecting from the ice, and the contrast between that and my memory of one childhood June, when hailstones hammered me on my way home from school and landed like snow on warm gravel.
The mythological references just… fit. Past, present, future; life and death, cold and warmth; all turning on the cusp of the year. I don’t understand poems. I just write ’em.