Water heals memories. -- Annie Dillard
I dream of fish.
I know, I know. Believe me, I know. But. Still. I sleep. They swim.
We swim every day here. Therapy or whatever. Normally, say therapy, and Iíll bitch and complain. But, when it comes to working in the pool? Totally different story. The water is -- itís almost magical. Itís like my fairy godmother waved a wand and made me whole again; in the water, these two useless lumps called my legs detach from my body, set me free. In the water, I feel like Emily Bowen-Quartermaine again, and thatís no small gift.
The summer I was eleven, my mom and I rented a cabin in the Rockies for a week. She couldnít really afford it, but she told me we both needed to feel some air on our faces, breathe something clean in our lungs for a change. My mom was like that. She always figured out what I needed, way before I did, and if she could, she gave it to me. Only one time in her life she failed me. Thereís a stupid little part of me that still hasnít forgiven her for that. Both for failing me and for not preparing me for the possibility that one day she would.
We couldnít swim at the cabin. It sat on the edge of a small lake, more like a pond, I guess. Small, and this deep blue-green, and gorgeous. Looked like it was built for moms and their eleven-year old daughters to jump in and swim. But, appearances can be deceptive. You know, I wonder if thatís the first time I learned that. Anyway, it was cold. And, I donít just mean chilly, I mean snow-fed, practically ice, walk-in-freezer-like COLD. Even dangling your feet off the miniature dock for too long left them reddened and tingling. Mom and I did it anyway. There are lots of ways you can rebel against the hand life deals you, big and small. We Bowen women had plenty to rebel against.
It was on that dock the last night of our vacation that Mom told me the monster was re-entering our lives. I was dangling a fishing pole in the water and leaning against my motherís shoulder. I had played at fishing all week, not catching anything. Just enjoying sitting there, letting the pole hang from my hand, chewing on a piece of wild hay. I was reading Tom Sawyer that summer, and playing Tom was way more fun than playing Becky Thatcher. Mom stroked my cheek, pushing the stray hair behind my ear. I can still feel her fingers on my face if I close my eyes. She said it simply, quietly, shading her eyes with one hand as she looked at the sun across the lake. ďEm, baby, itís back. The cancerís back.Ē
The cancerís back. Itís such a cliche to say, but it was like the words echoed. Like I heard them not just in my ears but in my bones, in my heart. For a long time, there was nothing else. I didnít speak, neither did she. Iím pretty sure I didnít even breathe. Sometimes, when I think back, I like to think that if things had been different, we could have sat like that forever. Instead, the pole jerked between my hands. Because nothing lasts forever, and most things never even come close. I wasnít even trying to -- I just pulled back against it. Wasnít gonna let it go. Momís hand slipped from my cheek, slid down to cover mine on the pole and helped me pull. Still wordless, we grunted and tugged until the fish flopped onto the dock, hook embedded firmly in itís mouth.
I stared at it, gills frantically opening and closing, then stared up at Mom. Drew in a sharp, gasping breath and threw myself into her arms, sobbing. ďPut it back,Ē I cried, over and over and over again. ďOh, Mom, please, put it back!Ē
I dream of fish.
I sleep, and I see them all around me. Bright, shining, quick. Free. I feel the water flowing through my hair, everywhere. I know that itís cold, but somehow I donít feel it. Instead itís like silk against my skin, like air would feel if it were malleable.
I move, and Iím quick and free as they are. Suddenly I feel fingers against my cheek, and I close my eyes. Go, I hear her whisper. Fly, she says. Do what youíre here for. Iím still for a long moment, not wanting her to leave me, but she always does, no matter how long I hold my breath. I open my eyes. Fish surround me, swirling in patterns that for just a moment, I think I recognize. I kick my legs, strong and powerful. I take a deep breath, breathing in water as easy as air. I pause only long enough to whisper a name.
When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still. One should learn to control the breath. --Hatha Yoga Pradipika
The ease with which most people breathe never ceases to amaze me.
I lie here at night, and every night, when the dark blankets my room, itís a conscious effort just to maintain the simple pattern of in, out, in and out again. The knowledge that for the majority of humans this is a natural process is enough to make me give it up all together.
When I was small, Stefan would creep into my room at night after the lights had been extinguished. My lone window faced south, and even with the shades drawn, the light entering from the moon was minimal. Stefan knew it was always hardest for me to breathe when the darkness was thick and heavy. Which made nights difficult. On the island, there was no darkness that was not.
Stefan knew things about darkness. And, if he couldnít keep it at bay, at least he could help me breathe my way through it.
He slipped into my room silently, of course -- if heíd been found the consequences would have been immeasurable. I never asked him how he knew; it never occurred to me to ask. At the age of six, it never occurred to me that there was anything Stefan didnít know. That first night, when I was six and he was eight, we both lay on our backs in that dark room on that island that was so far beyond dark. For a long space, Stefan simply listened as I fought for every breath that passed my lips. Then, he took my hand and placed it on his abdomen, took his hand and placed it on mine. He began to breathe deeply, audibly, in and out, in and out, in and out. Slowly, slowly, I could feel myself falling into his rhythm, breathing with him simultaneously until we sounded like one person. And the smothering blanket that was night and darkness and fear and everything I didnít know Iíd lost lifted, and I slept.
Until a night on the docks in a small town in upstate New York almost thirty years later, I would have sworn that the weight of my brotherís hand against my stomach was my earliest memory.
I lie here now, miles and years away from that terrified child, and even though the moon is full, I still feel the night like an elephant against my chest. Only this time there is no one to keep the dark at bay or breathe for me or even hand me a paper bag. As precious as the memory of my motherís voice is, there are times when I regret the loss of my brother as my first protector.
I splay my hand against my own stomach hoping that itís lone weight will be enough. And, it is then that I realize that Iím not the only one breathing in this dark room. She floats beneath my fingers, and when I breathe, so does she. Only it isnít air that my daughter draws in, it is me.
In that instant of epiphany, of revelation, of love, the pattern is not, after all, so hard to maintain. In and out, in and out, in and out. Breathing suddenly becomes a thing Iíve always known how to do, a trick I think Iíve mastered. Because I can, after all, remember my motherís voice. Because my brotherís blood runs in my veins and thus, in hers. Because never in all my years pursuing usefulness did I know a thing with such certainty as I know I want this child.
Itís such a simple thing, I marvel, as I close my eyes. I still feel the weight of my own palm against my abdomen as it rises and falls, rises and falls. In, out, in, out. In and out.
Such a simple thing, after all.
I want to believe the dead are not lost to us. --Fox Mulder, ďThe TruthĒ
Heíll never tell her, but he hates it when she wakes him from his nightmares. Sheíd view it as a betrayal; he knows her well enough to know that. He knows himself well enough to know that she wouldnít necessarily be wrong. His ghosts have always had more power over him than the people walking through his waking life.
Theyíve been coming to him every night, lately. Itís better that way -- another thing heíll never tell her. When they become familiar, sometimes they arenít nightmares any longer. Sometimes theyíre simply dreams. Sometimes theyíre memories -- or dreams he wishes were memories.
Sometimes, for the space of a night, heíd swear to God theyíre real.
There are times, right before heís jerked into the world heís made by her voice calling his name, that he could swear he feels Stoneís hand on his shoulder, smells Brendaís perfume, hears the strains of Lilyís piano. He can feel the weight of his children in his arms, and he knows them by name.
In that time that isnít quite dreaming and isnít quite living, when they look at him with something almost like peace in their eyes, he can even convince himself that maybe his dead are trying to save him from himself. Because someoneís got to be.
And, then she wakes him. Calls his name and holds him tight to her breast. His wifeís flesh is warm against his skin, and her breath is hot against her cheek. He grips Carly tightly and knows sheís real. It takes him a breath to remember her name even as her lips press softly against his neck -- one more thing sheíll never know.
Itís then, always, that he realizes none of them come to him in the night to save him. That the only one of them who tries to save him is the woman clinging to his neck. That what he wants most isnít someone whoíll rescue him from his life, itís someone whoíll let him live it.
He is a selfish man. Heís never denied that. He knows what his life is, where it leads. He knows the price he pays and pays and pays again for the choices he made long ago. But, heís a selfish bastard, and heís willing to pay that price, always has been. Or -- heís willing to let them pay it for him. Which is what the price is, in the end.
The dead know that. Theyíve paid it -- Adella and Lily and Brenda and his unborn children. They donít cling to him in the night and try to soothe him. They never promise him itís all gonna be okay. They know better.
In his dreams, he watches Lily step into the car, he sees Brenda standing alone in the rain, he hears his children take breaths they never formed in life, he smells the stink of hospitals and death that Stone wore like a fine perfume, he tastes the blood his mother shed in his name. And, he knows better.
Carly still believes that her love is enough to change him. She still believes that if she just holds him tight enough and turns herself inside out enough, if she just wants it enough, someday blood and souls wonít be his stock in trade. Each time her lips meet his, he can taste the poison of hopes and dreams and expectations, and somewhere deep inside himself, he cringes away, knowing that what he really tastes is ashes and disappointment and things that died long ago.
Heíll never tell her but he hates it when she wakes him from his nightmares. He betrays her every night, every time he closes his eyes and falls into sleep. He tells himself sheíll never know, but he knows thatís a lie. He knows one day, sheíll join them, on the other side of night, one day heíll go to her willingly in the night, while some other warm body lays by his side and holds him firmly bound to earth. When she wakes him, her lips warm against his cheek, sometimes he can feel it coming. And he smiles.