There’s a premonition, a dread… I’ve felt it before but this time it’s not coming from me. A feeling of horrified expectation radiates from the ground, the grass, the air, everything around me.
Emilie lies leaning on one elbow and turning the last pages of a book. My book … which she filched last week before I’d even finished it.
She’s on the swathe of grass I mowed but right beside untamed meadow I didn’t want to damage. The shadow of an ox-eye daisy stalk plays on her cheek. A butterfly, further away, traces its own shade over Emilie’s untanned skin. It’s a blurry shadow like a puff of flitting smoke.
Emilie is not swimming with the rest of the gang. She’s franzy over Mikhail condoning meat-eating. She likes Mikhail but hates being out-debated. As a result not only is Mikhail’s point of view the source of her fury but everything about him, everything he’s ever done or will ever do.
Emilie thinks it’s a bad idea to get on the wrong side of her but she’s mistaken. Her anger is never matched by action. She just seethes and throws fierce glances from boiling silences.
Like her I’m not swimming today, not amongst the crowd shouting and splashing in the river. The men never call me to join them because they’re all students and aloof, though sometimes I think it’s because I’m a farm labourer and have the powerful muscular body which goes with the job. Maybe they don’t like it when I’m among them and the female students.
The women sometimes invite me to swim too but not often. They don’t know what to make of me. I know my brain is wired up differently to normal people. I see a world they can’t but I’ve learned to stop talking about it – mostly. I still say weird things sometimes and don’t fit into any pigeon hole or category – and that unsettles people. Someone had a different plan for my brain when it was made. On one hand I write poetry for no one to hear, on the other I can’t even cope with numbers on my bank statements.
When I say stuff like their categories and pigeon holes are cages they trap themselves in, people look at me weirdly and talk to someone else or change the subject or go swimming.
I reckon the students only tolerate my presence because I let them into this field on Sundays to chill out. They are company for me too. That’s what I get out of it. I spend the weeks more or less alone. When I do talk to people it’s about fixing fences or how soon jobs need to be done and that’s just a few snatched seconds a day. I do feel inadequate when the students all talk academic stuff. Frequently I hide inside myself and don’t listen to it or even join them in the river but just sit and watch.
Some of them have their finals soon – as if coping with being alive isn’t already enough pressure on people.
I really want to play about in the river today but something’s holding me back: something’s really worrying the world and I don’t know what it is.
Emilie, only half a dozen metres away, tosses the book towards me. It arches through the air, fluttering, and lands in a mess, pages bent and creased. I don’t think she liked how the story ended. I wonder how it ends though I’m not sure I want to finish reading it.
Who would throw a book in that way? Someone angry, someone who doesn’t care about my property, someone who doesn’t realise damaging a book you’ve borrowed from another person is an insult.
Or … is there a different Emilie? Maybe the one slapping factor fifty sunblock all over her face and arms until it sticks the pale blue sleeves of her summer frock against skin, is actually a frightened person. Insecure. Wanted a sweet happy ending to the story to make life bearable for a moment. Is confused because she’s angry with Mikhail? He, in my opinion, is exactly who she should be going out with. Mikhail has much more clarity of thought and can match her intellectually. Maybe she’s not sure about anything. A person so gutted by a book ending that she acted through revulsion and without thinking. Is she horrified by her action but only showing it through the aggressive rubbing of lotion or hugging her knees tight, looking into the distance and pretending the throw didn’t happen? Emilie always radiates so much but it’s confused and difficult to read. Today it’s extreme, even frightening. I wonder if her life is headed for a happy ending or tragedy. Ow! … now I’m really wondering and it’s overwhelming me. Why?
As if the world knows I’m aware of the problem, it relaxes back into normality like it thinks I’m going to deal with everything. Only one tension remains obvious to me. High up in the ancient ruins on the castle mound, crows and rooks lurk and rustle like broken black kites flapping without a breeze, waiting for something. They hop from stone to stone or stare at the tumbled rocks far below.
Other than that, the big willow dips its fronds in the water as usual. It’s posing like people lounging in punts and trailing their fingers. Nearby stands a eucalyptus left over from when this was part of the manor arboretum. Its bark blazes almost too white in the summer sun; a magnificent sight lording it bold and proud over everything. It’s saying to the smaller trees striving for height and majesty, “This is how it is done!”
Meadow plants sway in the breeze of a lifting thermal. It will form a puffy cloud overhead, an aerial signal of messages beyond a human’s capacity to understand. These things are ignored by most people so they can pretend to know everything.
Butterflies zig-zag stitches in the air to hold the meadow down while swifts do the same higher up. A spider weaves a web in grass near me. It knows about holding the world tight too, that things need to be tied together. The cloud is like an idea forming … but not quite ready yet.
Oh! that lovely thrill that sparkles through me as a skylark launches itself vertically, twittering, for no other reasons than rising and calling out need to be done. It’s zooming up and making a chattering racket.
Feeling the ground pressing against me, I want to push Emilie into it. She’s too separate from everything and caving in on herself. She rises in jerks, angry? frustrated? frightened? All of those maybe … but lonely.
Lifting the book, I stroke bent pages in apology. Emilie is a part of me, just like the spider, the people playing in the river, the meadow and the trees; I accept some responsibility for her actions.
The way I tease the book back into shape might not be seen by her as a gentle entreaty to care for my property; maybe it screams ‘bitch!’. I don’t know how she’ll take it or even if it will get as far as conscious thought.
She’s displaced my bookmark but I know roughly where I was anyway. Do I read on? No. The main character is leading his donkey and cart up the hill and they’re about to reach the old bridge. If he passes it he’ll just go to the manor and fix the stable wall. If he crosses the bridge he and the donkey will have to struggle up a steep and stream-rutted road all the way to the hamlet. That’s what I want him to do because he’ll see the dam needs fixing. If it fails the water wheel will stop, the pump will stop, the mine will flood and people will die. I think, I want to think, no … I’m going to think he climbs to the hamlet and remembers watching his grandfather and the other men build the dam and maintain it. He was a boy too small to help but able to watch and listen.
I’m going to imagine myself into his head and be the whim that says ‘This could be your last chance to see the house you grew up in. Soon you will be too old to get up there’.
That’s how his story will end – happily – because I got into his head in time.
I close the book. Now I know of two outcomes and can pick the one I want: I have control of the ending.
Emilie stands by the bank and stares into space, hugging herself. Whatever fight is going on inside her is too much to bear. She’s staring at the path leading to the castle’s broken tower.
The eucalyptus, the spider, the way I took control of the book, everything is clamouring in my head.
Emilie is shaking, desperate, too desperate: out of control. She heads for the tower, arms down, not even bothering about the huge nettles.
The cloud is complete: telling me to help Emilie change her ending. No more doubt and conflict for you, Emilie. I won’t push you into the ground; no, I’ll tear off my T-shirt and jeans … no, no time for that! I sprint to you, grab and lift you like this, over my shoulder, slither and skid on stones at the bank and race into the water while you kick and shriek in shock, in frustration and finally… Everyone’s shouting and splashing us and we’re both soaking wet. Mikhail grabs one of your shoes as it tries to float away. You’re punching me and laughing through tears. I spin you round. Mikhail throws your shoe to the bank as I push you into his arms.
Sometimes it only takes a moment’s distraction to avoid the most terrible things.
It’s a tiny start but, Emilie, you’re in among your friends now: attached again. You’ve done me a favour too. I’m tall, bold and strong – among women in bikinis and swimsuits…
I’m the skylark and eucalyptus today. This is how it is done!
©Gary Bonn, 2017