Perhaps the breath of a pitiable god after all
Ian Angus MacLean
They met in the woods. They would tell no one where. John and Adelaide. It was autumn now and the forest posed individual scenes of death, plants holding spare leaves (leaves not of those base plants but leaves fallen from oaks and windswept and pierced onto the sharp twigs of that lower brush) as they rot or decay, colourful but blackened leaves, which dripped rue and grey from an earlier rain. The bones of a fox could be seen tended by wasps. And what had made all the trees to crack, the area become littered with giant branches? A freak snowstorm a few weeks prior.
On the forest floor there was decorated millions of pine needles fallen and browning now. So much detail to overwhelm them. Something to keep out of ledger.
John lay amongst the cattails beside Adelaide. They were both wet from the pond. He closed his eyes and rested, and soon felt a hot breath upon his face. He thought Adelaide had moved closer, leaning in, but when he opened his eyes he was staring at the sky and Adelaide was lying where she had been from the start.
They walked through the city, past the numerous storefronts of Market Street. It was summer, then.
There was an old silver woman sitting on a bench and eating lunch, and she watched the young couple as they approached. The man didn’t have many distinguishing features besides his left eyebrow, which was half made up of grey hair, odd for his age. The lady had very long and curling blonde hair. Cold blue, almost grey eyes pierced through. She was very thin and very pale, of Scandinavian origin, and the dress she had on seemed made of a material that belonged on an antique doll.
“Ohh, look at the lovely couple.”
“Hello,” said John.
They walked until they came to the Glenbow Museum and entered. They paid their entrance fee and ambled about the various floors. On the second floor, a few works by Titian were on display. John studied each painting carefully. Adelaide grew weary and drifted away. She sat on a bench and watched other patrons walk by. She took the elevator up to library and archives, and looked at few photographs of frontier life there. She took the elevator down another floor and walked quickly through the rock and crystal displays. She then took the staircase slowly down to the first floor. In the gallery’s bookstore she picked up a book about Titian’s work, and read from a section about The Rape of Europa. The writer noted how Europa has no choice but to yield. How the words rape and rapture share a common root in Latin.
The apartment was sparse. Softwood floors. The paint on the walls was of littoral blues, with some paisley patterning in one corner. An old iron bedframe and an overflowing bookshelf in the bedroom. In the main room, a radio sat upon a telephone bureau. The overhead light was humming loudly, so John turned on the lamp instead. He went into the washroom and felt the wall in the dark, then leaned back out the doorway to find the lightswitch he always missed. The bathroom was small, the closing door just clearing the sink. He took a plastic bottle out of his pocket and, placing an aspirin on his tongue, leaned in for some tap water and swallowed. He looked in the cabinet behind the mirror and found another bottle of pills. He stared at them for awhile. Then he left the bathroom and emptied his pockets on the telephone bureau, dropping a nickel in the process. He began opening the curtains and then the windows, which had to be kept open with wooden spoons from the kitchen.
Adelaide was sitting on the balcony, smoking a cigarette and rubbing her forehead. The chimes of some window rang. She read from a crumpled book. John came out to join her.
“What are you reading?”
Adelaide passed the book to John. He read one.
“It’s very sad.”
“I think it’s hopeful.”
“Maybe it’s a poor translation.”
“I’m just joking.”
“You should read the whole thing sometime.”
“Yes. It’s one of my favourites. I’ve carried it around for years.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Everyone’s got secrets.”
“The pages are bent.”
“Some of them. To mark my favourites.”
“Did you want anything to eat?”
John placed his right hand on Adelaide’s neck and rubbed.
“Did you take your medication today?”
“No. I’ve decided to stockpile them. In case anyone kidnaps me, I can poison myself before they do any serious harm.”
“That was a joke.”
“It wasn’t funny.”
They listened to the wind rustle the trees. Adelaide spoke.
“Did you finish the journals yet?”
“Your journals? Not quite. Almost.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“More than nothing.”
“I don’t really know what to say. I haven’t had much time to think things over.”
“There has to be something.”
“I guess I’m caught off guard.”
“The honesty, I guess.”
“Mm. Personal writings are usually that.”
“I’m new to this.”
“Sharing things from your life?”
“No. I mean things in this intensity. Besides, I don’t keep much from the past. Old journals or books or photographs. You know that.”
“I know. I hate it.”
“There’s just a certain…sentimentality…in keepsakes like that. I’m just not built for it.”
“You could learn.”
“Sentimental value isn’t a bad thing.”
“I just think it can be dangerous to keep looking back.”
“So you’ve said. You’ve also said that people can learn anything.”
“You should include yourself in that.”
“Seriously. Take a day. Look at an old photograph.”
The two fell quiet. It was John who spoke first this time.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Have you eaten today?”
“What did you eat?”
Quiet again. A cat had been making its way up the nearest tree, and now it leaped onto the balcony. Adelaide picked it up and began stroking it.
“Hey Sweetie. Hey Sweet Dreams.”
The cat purred. After a time, Adelaide spoke again.
“I was reading the newspaper today. The police found 24 malnourished cats in a woman’s home. She was trying to care for them all.”
Later and into the evening they lay together in bed, not touching. It was raining now and John had closed the windows. Adelaide had brought the cat in for the night and held this tammy softly. John piped on the radio. Some nameless classical music filled the room. After awhile John noticed Adelaide had fallen asleep. He turned off the lamp and closed his eyes as well.
John dreamt of walking down a long stone hall. Adelaide dreamt of her mother’s pregnancy.
The sensation of water dripping on his forehead roused John from sleep. He thought rain was leaking through a crack in the ceiling, but Adelaide was sitting on top of him, crying.
Adelaide sat with her knees together, her feet bare on the wood of the small skiff. She faced the shore. A water snake wove along the water in a manner redundant to the shape of the river. The skiff was shallow going for a time after their castoff and the vessel bumped along rocks. John found a drifting stick and hauled this and used it to keep from larger rocks or the shore. When they got to a good piece of river, he relaxed. Now they regarded differently the gravel bars and little islands of stone they passed by. The two sipped beer and splashed water on the back of their necks. John’s eyes closed with the heat. Adelaide contemplated the riddles of the clouds.
The river chattered as they drifted along, the chattering eventually turning to the talk of shore folk seated on concrete slabs, and passing by this to gravel bars and privacy again. Without much care they noticed a few houses whose yards backed onto the river. Bridges passed overhead. Groups of mallards. The sun was kind and Adelaide was smiling slightly. She departed from the vessel and slid into the cool and velvet waters. She swam. She swam until the water was too shallow and small pebbles bit at her feet.
At night they walked in the park, again listening to the chattering of the river. With a flashlight John would light up certain sections of the water, mostly by bridges, to show her where muskrats would dip into the water. Adelaide had been reading a book on muskrats. She commented on the moon. Two other figures passed them by in shadow and Adelaide gripped John’s arm.
“Are you alright?”
“Why does everyone think something is wrong when one party is quiet?”
“I was just asking. Besides, you’re not touching your food.”
“I thought Italian was your favourite?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Oh. We can leave if you want.”
“No it’s fine. Keep eating. The wine is nice.”
“If you say so.”
“What is it?”
“How was your session today?”
“Confidential as usual.”
“Okay. Sorry. But if there’s anything you ever want to talk about.”
“I know John. I know.”
John tried to hold Adelaide’s gaze but she turned away. He pulled a shrimp shell out of his teeth. Adelaide finished her wine and then spoke.
“Today I was just thinking about Jainism. Have you ever heard of Jainism?”
“No. What is it?”
“It’s an ancient religion originating from India.”
“And what do they say?”
“Many things. Mostly the followers just try to get through the world consuming as few resources as possible. Or if they have to consume, they do it in a humane way.”
“That sounds honourable.”
“Some practitioners wear masks to keep from accidently inhaling bugs.”
“Others still use broom-type instruments to sweep the ground ahead of them, to avoid crushing small insects.”
“Are you thinking of becoming a…what is it…a Jainist?”
The waiter stopped by to refill the water glasses, and spoke to John.
“How are you two doing? Can I get you anything?”
“Ah, well. Ma’am, is everything tasting alright?”
“Yes. Could I get this meal packed up to go though?”
“Of course. And you sir?”
“Nothing for me.”
The waiter walked on.
“Did you want to eat back at the apartment instead?”
“No. I’m going to give it to the displaced person outside.”
“The fellow on the corner. We passed him on the way here.”
“He’s a regular on this street. Usually in the same spot every day. We’ve been speaking recently. I haven’t learned his name though.”
They drove out of the city to and hiked into the mountains, a wild upland world where the trees were older than anything that was. A joyous and mortified so-called Mother this earth, whose birds burst forth from bellies of dirt to sing strong. A few feathers fell to John’s feet and as he bent to pick them up, he saw he was standing on some white cowl forgot there. He looked around for Adelaide. She stood by a thicker section of forest, touching the trees and patting the moss.
Next they had to climb a steep path of waterslick stones. It was slow going. There was a good view of a waterfall after awhile. The path eventually flattened out and they were admiring trees again. They were then led to a lake where the water seemed to glow. Adelaide thought it looked full of chemicals, compared the colour to glass cleaner. John told her the colour was created by the presence of fine particles of glacial sediment called rock flour that was suspended in the water: the minute, uniform particles reflect the blue and green wavelengths of light, giving the water its rich, jewel-toned colour. Adelaide said she knew this.
They ate a packed lunch and afterwards climbed past the lakes. Amongst a canyon they found rock paintings painted by the ancestors of Kootenai tribes a thousand years before.
Steam rose from the Banff hot springs. From their mountain heights, Adelaide and John watched this steam evaporate into the sky. These hot springs were commercially developed, expensive, and seemed almost sterile. It was quite crowded with tourists, and John eavesdropped on the other visitors in order to make jokes. Adelaide closed her eyes.
As they walked from the changing facilities to the parking lot, Adelaide heard laughter off to the side of a wooden walkway. She leaned over the railing, and below could see where a trickle of the mountain water was gathering itself in a natural stone arrangement to make for a tiny hot spring. An East Indian couple and their child had submerged their feet in the warm water and were looking off into the distance, relaxed and simple.
“No, Addie, no I don’t think it’s a courageous idea at all.”
“I think it takes bravery, yes. And devotion. But it’s not moral.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, take medieval knights for example. They swore their lives by five main virtues. I believe they were temperance, courage, love, loyalty, and courtesy. Each is one of a number of functions. If you have one function dominate the others, you’ll go crazy.”
“But what I’m talking about involves all those things.”
“No it doesn’t. That final virtue, courtesy, is respect for the society in which you are living.”
“These are different times. Those knights only exist in fairy tales now.”
“No. It’s history. And I think that the medieval period was more brutal than this one.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s just agreed upon.”
“But you don’t know for sure. Historians haven’t had their say about this period of time yet. Personally, I think we’re living in the worst times. The climate has changed so radically. The earth has become suicidal, it’s shrugging humans off of it everyday. There’s simply too many people, and not enough resources. I could speak at length about the problems of our age, but you know them just as well as I do, you know that-”
“Even if things are bad there is the chance, the hope, they will get better.”
“Here we go again.”
“Think of the Renaissance. Hell, think of Darwin’s work. Paradigms shift. Then actions.”
“Deposed ways of thinking still exist. Outlawed actions will always persist. It’s just human nature. You can look to your history books for that.”
“That is one way of looking at it, but-”
“But I don’t feel like talking about this anymore.”
She refused to turn on any lights at night. More time for thinking and dreaming, she said. Reaching for his indiscernible shape in that dark, they were strangers again.
John pulled out of the parking lot and drove off. The back seat was filled with books. He was speeding.
“Adelaide, what were you doing in there?”
“I wondered if that man has ever felt the touch of another human aside from his family. Is that inappropriate?”
“You can’t just-”
“I was just holding his hand while we looked for books. I think I patted his stomach.”
“He wouldn’t stop following you around after that.”
“His mother didn’t need to freak out like that.”
“Adelaide, the guy threw a fit when you asked him to stop following you.”
“Well I didn’t know he would do that.”
“Well maybe you-”
“You weren’t jealous were you?”
“No. What? No.”
“Would you have been jealous if it were a different man?”
“If I had been touching a man without a developmental disability in an affectionate way, would you have been jealous?”
“I don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish here.”
“Just answer the question John.”
The day was spent looking at the wares on display in shop windows. In the evening, Adelaide suggested a pub in the neighbourhood. They eased into a booth, ordered rum and colas, and watched people entertain themselves with karaoke. Adelaide was biting her cheeks but said that she was enjoying the singing.
At ten o’clock a blues band began to set up and play. John went to the bar to get more drinks, and Adelaide went to the bathroom to drink from a mickey of vodka she had snuck in. Blood from her gnawed cheeks went down her throat and her small wounds stung. She polished off the vodka and made her way to the main floor to dance. A few men made catcalls. She spun toward them and lifted her dress just a little, showing them a flash of thigh just above her leggings. This set the men to hollering and whooping. Adelaide approached their table and placed her hand lightly on one of the beer bottles.
“Do you mind if I have a bit of this?”
“You go right on ahead honey.”
She grabbed hold of the bottle and smashed it on the table, then pointed the jagged remains at the nearest face, speaking good-naturedly.
“Have you ever given yourself to something higher than flesh?”
Her feet were up on the dashboard as they drove through the countryside. Mariachi music on the radio. Canola fields out the window. They passed a town called Frank’s Slide that had been buried under a rockslide in 1903. At the borders of a cattle ranch Adelaide asked John if he could pull over. She got out and approached the fence, and soon some curious cows were within arm’s reach.
Adelaide fainted. John leaned her against the fence and fanned her face with a magazine from the car. When she came to, she squinted into the sun. She had woken again as she always did from the images, images which she had told him were just recurring nightmares, and that telling a false telling and she remembered this:
The downing sun shining weakly through the trees, through the branches two children found her naked and shivering, not knowing if she was dead for her face was so pale, body so wooden, her dress ripped but wait again she is shivering. Something ominous seemed to hang in the air, suspended like a sound you could hear it. She was in her body but looking down on it, she was the two children looking down on her. She was muttering and what she was muttering she would repeat for months, years, afterward: piercing scintilla, piercing scintilla
A flu kept her in bed for two weeks. She would see no doctor. They argued. Adelaide asked John to pick her up some cola, bread, butter, and ibuprofen. A few minutes after John left, Adelaide raised herself out of the bed. She felt very light and she could feel her blood pumping for the heart was loud. She put on a jacket. Then she left.
John arrived at the apartment building with simple groceries. It had been a nice day for walking, the weather fair, he had taken his time. He entered the suite and placed the bag down, put the cola in the fridge. Adelaide was nowhere to be found. The hours passed and slowly the colour in John’s face drained from red to stone. In another moment he was out the door and in the car, pulling out his phone.
She ran through the city, down paths of argchymists and godfear, numerous roads to thrones and poisons. Nine hundred and ninety thousand people make up this city, nine hundred and ninety thousand self-worshipping deities. And what am I amongst them? I have but one path to follow.
Farewell to this fortress I once did trust to stop entire floods. Walls great and high, and note the sealed gates. Celestial city that has no need for sun or moon to shine upon it, for alchemical man has given it lamp and light.
I want omphalos!
Nests of larks to the east. Now the red-gold antimony glass of more buildings, always multiplying towers. Man was made in the image of god, and the city made in the image of man, so it is said. Divine geometry. Phallus does sicken. Domes do come in pairs exaggerate.
I want omphalos!
“Our future temples will be wonderful representations of unified experiences,” said Hugo Hoeppner. He who helped qualify Ravensbruck.
Walk on. The homeless are eating stolen corn behind copper pillars this day. In odd places you can see these discarded vegetables gathered, the corn’s golden strands. Heaps of flowing blonde hair amongst the sound of gnashing teeth.
I can detect the scent of myrrh in these poor and church riddled keeps. These buildings shall remain inaccessible to the godless, from those uninitiated to the teachings of the son of god. He who had strongest love reserved only for virgins and repented whores. Did Mary agree to the entrance of the Holy Spirit? Could she feel that ectoplasm or see? Excretion almost as light as water. Which they said must represent charity. In destiny is only water, the rising seas of a ruined world, all things slowly returning to the first, like those germs of life that once drifted on the cooling oceans of this planet’s infancy
Mother. Goddess. Queen.
Medusa. Siren. Hag.
A void in me
He would meet her again in autumn, as told. It was a Wednesday in the first week of October, and John decided to visit the winding paths of the nature reserve which lay in the south of the city.
He noticed only one car in the parking lot. After walking for a few miles, he was deep in forest. Few autumnal colours were about, as a freak snowstorm, beginning on the 10th of September, had added much weight to the already burdened and fully dressed trees. How else could he describe the scene around him, except that the plants looked sad, that everything seemed to be decaying?
He had spent a couple of hours navigating off the main path, then came to a break in the woods which led to a field spotted with a few ponds. Far off, he thought he could make out the shape of a hooded feminine figure, moving very slowly amongst the cattails. A bit of golden and curled hair fell out of the girl’s hood. She seemed to be moving towards one of the ponds. She was moving so slowly, almost limping. He had cause to think she had broken her leg or foot somewhere out here. He began to move towards her.
Before John had reached the girl, she had reached the edge of the wide pond and was gently swaying there. A few ducks called. Rope trailed from her legs, tied to her ankles and two large stones which she carried in her hands. John began calling out to her but she moved slowly forward into the pond and threw the stones into the deep and dropped from sight.
He ran to the pond, kicking off his boots as he went, and dove in. In that murk, all he could make out was her hair spreading through the water. It was all he could do to grasp at it. He tried to pull but he could not. The two struggled in those lower depths. Her legs or hair seemed tangled in reeds. Which way was up? She was still sinking very slowly, and he could feel her flailing at him. He swam lower and with his pocketknife cut the ropes that gripped her ankles. He then looked for the light of the outer world and hauled her forth.
Sputtering and dragged, she lay in the cattails, catching her breath. When John recognized who it was he felt faint, and lay down beside her, speaking, sputtering too, still:
“Adelaide was happened to you happened you Addie-”
And her crying,
“John what have you done you idiot you goddamned fool-”
“Addie please just tell me what happened I can help I-”
“You idiot what have you done I belong down there can’t you see that I-”
“You idiot! I live down there!”
Ian Angus MacLean is a Canadian writer. His most recent work is forthcoming from The Literary Review of Canada.