“Tell the truth.
Then obscure it with fact.”
body, remember #manifesto
I can’t say when I am first aware of her. When she stands out from the crush of people I navigate every morning on the way to work. Perhaps it is when I return to a five-day week, when I heal enough to attempt a routine. Once you notice someone, you can’t remember when you didn’t. It is this way with her. With the woman who stares at me from over the coffee she tentatively sips each morning. Always the slight grimace with the first taste, an odd little reaction when others seem to sigh into their first hit of the day. Maybe this is what I notice first, the way she drinks her coffee. And then, of course, the way she stares, the way she smiles and looks away too fast. How can you tell if a smile meets the eyes, when the person looks away too soon?
It is clear that she knows who I am. People have no idea how unsubtle they are. The little nudges, the whispers that really aren’t. It is far easier to manage the strange boldness of those who come up to me directly, who say I saw you on the TV and make no secret of their agenda. These people, I can hold their gaze, or drop mine, as I let them stake their claim. I saw you on the TV, and – the story is different for each person who accosts me. Some want me to know what happened to them, some want to offer their god or advice. Others want to scold, and then offer god or advice.
But she does neither of these things. This woman with dark hair who watches me every morning, who bites her lip as she stares down at the table between us. Whoever this woman is, she is sad. A sadness like this – like ours – it announces itself on a person, it walks them into every room. I can see this ache, this unwanted companion of hers, right from the start. Before I know her name. Before I know Maggie Valentine. This woman who is weighed down by her sorrow, and, I will soon discover, her secrets.
That’s the other thing about people, Ben. They think if they don’t look – you won’t see. But at the same time there they are, desperately wanting to be found out. It’s obvious, once you know. Every one of us silently saying – Come on, look a little closer. Look a little closer at me. Please. Not even knowing that they’re asking. Not yet understanding that we only hide the things we most want someone to find.
When Maggie Valentine cries and tells me you were her friend, I am not surprised. I see her sadness and her secrets, and I know this is just the beginning of a story that has been waiting to be told.
My insightful little Lucy, the wounded philosopher of The Memory of Stars. Still working out if what she says makes any kind of sense …
There are two things people say to me in this first week. In addition to the chorus line of I’m so sorrys and god is mysterious that I receive, people either put their hand on my shoulder and say you’re so strong, Anna. Or they squeeze my own hand and stress – you must remember the good times. Many of our friends and family try for both at once.
You’re so strong. Like there is a way for them to measure my strength as I stand before them. As if they can see through my skin to the muscle beneath, see it coiled and ready for battle under shoulders I’ve squared. How do you know I want to ask. What makes you think I’m not falling apart? Can you measure my sadness too? My anger? And the fact that it hurts to breathe in, and more to breathe out?
What do they want to see when they say I am strong? They mistake my impassive look for some kind of resilience, my washed hair and made-up face for some kind of control. I don’t even know how I got up this morning, it was there, and I am in it, but it is a stranger who looks in the mirror and applies her foundation, who pulls her hair back in a bun. You’re so strong is what they say to her. My frozen smile is hers, not mine. Behind that smile I answer them with a scream.
No one goes looking for the sadness. For where I’ve had to hide it since the day that you died. I keep thinking of that machine the naturopath used on me, just before I fell pregnant. Remember? When we were trying different ways to load the dice in our favour. She said it would reveal my cellular composition, an important consideration for a 37 year old trying for a baby. You are made up of this much fat and this much muscle, Anna. You are carrying this much water, here and here she pointed out. Would that machine read my sadness now? Could it see that here is the ache that comes when I wake? Here is the panic that my fingers try to pull from my chest. Here is the deepest sorrow I have ever known, and here is the anger too that flares, sudden and strong. You are made up of this much sadness and this much anger now, Anna. You are carrying too much of both, here and here. This machine would not say I am strong. Not when it could see inside me.
And you must remember the good times. The urging of it, the suggestion that we can clean and polish our memory at will. Remember your wedding day, Anna. The third-dimension pain and joy of Ollie’s birth. Remember the way Ben kissed your nose, and his heavy hand on your hip. Remember the collection of days and moments when he was fully and truly yours. Clear out the rest, or push it away. Don’t think of the day you found those emails. Don’t think of how once he lied you never again knew a single truth. Don’t think of that, and what you lost. In death he has been given a pass, and so have you. This is how we would like you to deal.
Do you remember that story I loved on our honeymoon, Ben? On that white-knuckled bus ride to Hanoi. The story that made me cry just a little, and you said I was getting sentimental in my old age, but you went a little misty just the same. The story of the lost souls of Vietnam, and how the monk we had just passed on the road was dedicating his life to walking these paths, to collecting the dead that were lost. The monk’s work was to gather up all those who had died far from home, to carry their spirits back to where they came from. In a country torn apart by war there were literally thousands of these souls wandering the countryside, wounded and lost. So many people who never made it home. The Vietnamese considered it bad luck to die away from family, and this monk was committed to returning their dead. People stood on either side of the road and prayed as he past, on a journey that our guide said would take seven years. (There it is, that number again. The time it takes for cells to renew).
He told us of another custom too, our guide, the storyteller. It was tradition for people of this region to dig up the bones of the dead. After three years of mourning, they would extract and re-bury the bones of their loved ones on family land, erecting tombstones in fields all over the countryside. These tombstones would become temples for a family to visit and honour, after they brought their dead home.
Would I dig up your bones, Ben? In three years, when your flesh has fallen away, and the matter of your brain has dissolved. Would I clean and polish each composite part and put you back together again? I wondered then, and I wonder now – what would they feel like between my hands, these bones of the dead. Would they be heavy and hard, or do the dead crumble to the touch? What would I do if I held you this way? Would I lay myself down amongst the bones of our marriage, would I honour the first seven years of our love? Or would I scoop up the bones of your affair and use them to smash out of this nightmare we’re in? Cracking you into smaller and smaller pieces until I made you disappear. What would three more years of this mourning bring?
You must remember the good times they say, and how could they ever understand that even the best of these are broken. I miss you so much, Ben. They will bury your bones and I already want to dig you up, to scrape off the dirt until what is left looks shiny and new again. I want to clean your bones, and bring you home.
I am beginning to understand the facts of your death, the detail. But grief – grief, cannot be learned in this way.
The morning everything changed started off like any other. Isn’t that what they say, anyone who knows what it is like to have everything shift on its axis, the way I do now. There is no prescience, no inkling in the waking up, the reluctant sliding of feet into sneakers, the bleary sipping at instant coffee while you wait for the dark to give way to a safer shade of grey. How different can it be, the morning that everything changes? The planet itself is not adjusting itself for your story, it is not preparing you or it for what is to come. The indifference of the world to your plight is a remarkable thing to realize. Liberating even, once you understand that it all goes on without you. Although that day, I learnt what it means to be firmly at the centre.
It started as just another morning in this new life of mine. I had been living it slowly for weeks, testing out this new ground like some baby animal learning to walk. When I left Adam, time changed its pace to something slower than I’d known. When you have been tethered so long and finally find yourself free, you do not burst into a sudden run. Days are to be absorbed; like sun on skin most sensations are felt from far away, and it takes nights and weeks to find yourself present in any moment, to know that you are here, safe, sure. I had been in a relationship since I was 18 years old. I had been wrapped so tight in Adam’s love that everything felt loose and vast when I finally shook it off.
It takes time to learn how to be free. I was terrified of the open spaces before me, the emptiness after years of clutter. I understand a little of why people stay so long. Fear is easier to contain when you can recognize it. Then there is the isolation, the looking up to find no-one is waiting . I had lost so many friends and barely noticed, the girls from my dance classes, the worlds of people from my time with the Company. Each one inching, then turning away when I wouldn’t follow the lead they offered. So many, I see now, who tried to help me extricate myself in those early days. So many who said oh hey there’s a bed at mine if you ever need, and asked of me more than others, Lucy, are you okay? I always said yes because what would you say? When the love we danced, the art we made was so often violent and explosive. How could I say I didn’t want it that way off stage?
They are jealous of you, baby Adam would say as one by one these sentinels dropped away. But don’t worry because you’ll always have me. No-one knows you like I do.
Funny that sentence. No-one knows you like I do. How it can sound so assuring at first, how eager we are to be known, and how sure we are that we are not already transparent. Later, when you have given it all away, that sentence will be thrown back at you, as hard as a slap. No-one knows you like I do. Your selfishness, and your stupidity, and your ugliness. No-one sees the real you, the pathetic you, except for me. And you’ve already believed the words a hundred times, so this is just another truth to absorb. From the person who knows you best. The careful engineer of your isolation. Yes, I know a little of why people stay.
That morning, the morning everything changed, I was thinking about dancing again. How there must be some memory of it still in my bones. Muscle, they say, but I think it goes deeper. I thought I might make a call – tomorrow. Toby, he still ran his studio from that warehouse in Prahran, maybe he’d let me teach a class or two, find my way back. I was sure it would not take long for me to remember.
When I set off for my run I felt pleased with my intentions. A future plan, an idea of tomorrow. For the first time I did not feel like I was escaping. Funny to have that thought right before I was pulled back in.
Eidyia’s note: I want to take care with this character. The final act belongs to Lucy …
“Spotting is the process of delaying the rotation of the head, relative to the body’s rotational speed, by way of visual focus on one or more fixed points in space”
Lucy Mason was always going to be a ballerina. An encounter with Swan Lake at four, the lessons that followed in an octogenarian’s garage – these were the first landmarks on the map of what she would become. She followed the path one perfected step at a time.
The finest of lines exists between fascination and obsession, and no-one crosses it better than children. By her 10th birthday Lucy was dancing every day. Feet turned out, shifting from first through fifth in the course of a conversation, her arms conducting silent music. This is how she met the world.
Lucy loved the sinew and strain of a dancer’s body, the strength concealed as grace. She would even come to love the pain this body could endure – the bleeding toes, the torn muscle, every ripple of hunger from the inside out. She knew just how much the body could tolerate when it ached for perfection.
Most promising – this was the refrain she danced to through-out her teenage years. Promising. A vow made by the ones best fit to offer it – teachers, competition judges, the modelling agent who liked her frame. Lucy came to consider it no less than a prophecy, a notion of a future where she was already accepting flowers and applause. She need only keep her eyes fixed ahead to get there.
With such focus, Lucy made the lightest impression on the present. She let life glance off her movements and ignored the chaos of life waiting offstage. There would be no high school parties or fumbling romance, no office job or savings plan; should life present an alternative she would simply steady her centre and rehearse even harder for the life that was waiting.
And when she fell in love it would be set to music. Falling in to arms that would lift and catch. Touched by hands that would open before her and never clench. Not into a fist as it slammed against her cheek. Not wrapped around her throat as she was forced against the wall. Not turning the skin at her wrists a deep and spreading blue as they tightened their grip around her. This was not part of the prophecy. This was not the promise and the plan.
When a dancer learns the art of turns she is told to fix her eyes on point in the distance. With each turn the body is in constant motion but her vision remains set. At the last moment she will whip her head around to catch up with her body and there is a split second when all elements are in synch – a moment of pause – before she returns to her spot and continues to spin.
This is how she remains oriented, how she understands the location of her body in the space she occupies. If she stops focusing on this point in the distance her equilibrium is lost, she will tilt out of this delicate balance and her body can no longer support the motion. It is likely she will fall.
What does the muscle remember? How long can it hold the memory of dancing? When you have lost your balance and find yourself on the ground does your body remember how you turned out your feet, how you used to move from first through fifth, your arms conducting silent music? If you can just fix your sights on a point in the distance, the place where the future is waiting, can you pick yourself up and regain your momentum?
Can you keep on spinning when everything conspires to pull you out of the dance?
Note: Lucy is the second female character in body, remember – the woman that Mack steps in to save on that fateful morning by the river. She grew out of the piece above that I free-wrote a few months back, and it wasn’t until I was done that I realised that I had known her all along.
Where Maggie is constantly looking back, Lucy has spent her life focusing on the future – and both have done this at the expense of engaging in the world. They are essentially my equal and opposite forces, and their relationship will be the real catalyst to change as the story plays out.
Thanks for reading this very rough-draft introduction to Lucy!!
I am watching the coffee stain my fingers as you lay dying on the gravel.
It is a morning of bright blue promise. The breakfast show host is laughing at his own joke and I smile at the television without hearing the punch line. Next up a story on how most women do not wear the right size bra. I feel my left breast, it seems perfectly at home within its wire cup as my elbow knocks the coffee jar to the floor.
The crack of glass against tile – is this the moment the knife plunges through skin and muscle? When I bend down are you sinking to your knees as 6-inch metal severs vessel from vein? How is it that I do not feel a thing as I sweep the granules of coffee from the floor? How do I not struggle for breath as blood pools around the blade and the sky floods with red? As your body makes its last struggles at life and I watch water turn to rust on my fingers – how is it that I do not feel anything at all?
You went for an early run along the river. I did not even know you were here. I have stopped wondering where you are; as we each greet the day I am unaware of your proximity. It has taken me three months to stop looking for you everywhere. I would normally be by your side on a morning like this.
The moon must still be out when you start off, determined to hold back the day. They say you came across them arguing, that as you approached you saw him grab her by the hair. You have never forgotten the woman next door, the one you didn’t save, and I know you would have seen in this an offer at redemption.
Did you yell at him to stop, did you barrel forward and push her out of the way? I can see you running, see you in those last solid moments. Striding along the gravel track, side-stepping ducks and over-hang. And then the bridge, where they are. But here it stops.
I know he followed her. I know he had been watching and waiting for weeks, building his anger on her absence. She was running too, the other way, when he found her. And you got between them. You put your body between the trembling woman and this raging man. A shove, a punch – he will say you provoked him. You struggle, the yelling attracts runners above on the bridge, but it is too late when he reaches down, when he plunges in. Self-defence he will say, but you never left a mark as the thrust destroys the delicate machinery of your heart. She is screaming at him to stop. She will need stitches to the slicing of her hands as she tries to save you. But the force of his anger has found a target, and a lifetime of loss and misery reduces yours to a final minute.
And then he is the one to run, as you breathe out blood and she tries to stop you up. You lay in this woman’s arms, a stranger covered in your blood as she screams over your silence. By the time the sirens can be heard you are dead on the ground. I do not feel a thing.
We have an idea of goodbyes. We will run alongside a train until the platform gives out. We will stay in each other’s arms until they tear us apart. We make linoleum cathedrals of hospital rooms – we hold hands through tubes and machines, we stay next to the bed all through the night. We fix our eyes on that plane as it taxis away – we wave at the hand in the small window because it just might be you and it doesn’t even matter because until you leave the ground you are still here, you haven’t really gone away. Even when the plane takes flight and our insides fall, we keep looking up. We swear we can still see your hand pressed against the window, right until we can no longer make out metal from sky.
We have an idea of goodbyes. We are supposed to be present in the final moments. We are supposed to know what is happening to us, and how. As we part we are meant to feel the potent chemicals of loss take hold, to feel the ache of separation flood through our veins. We are meant to realise the tragedy of our ending.
How is it possible that I did not feel a thing?
The above is an extract from body, remember that I am taking a deep breath and sharing for the first time today. Thank you for reading!