Suggested music accompaniment to this post: Eminem & Rihanna “Love the Way You Lie”
Instrumental with Hook (thanks to 2010EminemRecovery on YouTube)
Monday, February 12, 2007:
Death by fire. I dream of dying in a burst of flames. Searing heat traveling from my feet, up my legs, swirling around me. I throw my head back to see a black sky scattered with stars, extinguished by a cloud of white smoke. It’s just burning, just a sensation, deep heat, just heat, only heat. A full scream, unrecognizable as my own; the pain rises to a final precipice.
Hot, dry, release. My soul purified by fire—a quick, dramatic death, nothing left but ash. The antithesis of my life. By day, I barely tread water, barely keep afloat. Perpetually behind, perpetually overwhelmed, stuck in a whirlpool going round, round, and around. Life by drowning.
Laying in bed, startled awake by the flames, my breath shallow, my heart racing, I throw off the covers to feel cold air flow across my sweat-soaked body and stare through the darkness at shadows haunting the ceiling. My mind returns to the safety of my bedroom, my husband’s even breathing beside me, my penchant for analysis. How does one interpret dreaming of death by fire? Past life: witch.
Then, as I relax into the present, it happens: my head fills with nervous thoughts: worry. Once turned on, the engine of my brain accelerates ahead. Work. Money. Lagging tasks. Unfulfilled commitments. Inadequate excuses.
My husband stirs in his sleep, prompting me to stealthily slink from our bed and navigate my way around furniture and into my office down the hall. Closing the door quietly, I awaken my computer and sit down facing it. What to do at 3am?
There is a yearning deep inside me, stretching from my very core; an angst. I want to write. But, I don’t. Seven years of university education in English Rhetoric, twenty-five grand in student loans, countless writing assignments, but I don’t write—not what I yearn to write. I write empty words to fulfill other people’s desires: marketing materials, corporate newsletters, website copy…all submerging my will to write my own story.
The glare of the blank white screen offends my eyes. What if I just started writing and didn’t stop—surrendering to the story? I picture myself seated comfortably, long after midnight, a cat asleep beside me, my fingers effortlessly tapping out word after beautiful word onto the glowing screen. My mind fearlessly opening to the page, revealing my deepest thoughts faster than I can type them. What would I say?
I open a blank document and sit with fingers poised over the keys. I could write about my inability to write: ironic…or pathetic? How do writers lay themselves bare—covered only by words, exposing their innermost thoughts to the world? Like peeling back their skin with a can opener and revealing the bloody inner core for all to scrutinize. If the sculptor’s chisel reveals their art, how many layers must I peel away to reveal my story? Raw, naked, exposed. They say, “The truth will set you free”. Or get you into a shitload of trouble.
My baby girl cries from the next room and I’m up like a shot to her bedside. Untangling her from the covers, I tuck her back in, and head back to my own bed. Distracted again—the story of my life.
I awaken to the offensively chipper chatter of morning show hosts from the clock radio at my husband’s bedside. Pulling up my knees, I withdraw deeper into the dark, warm covers and lift them over the back of my head, relieved when he hits “snooze” and heads to the bathroom. A ten-minute reprieve.
Visions of flame and smoke creep into my consciousness. My heartbeat quickens. I writhe, throw back the covers, and sit up abruptly, shaking the memory from my mind. No rest for the wicked. My feet search out their slippers and I drag myself to standing, only to feel a burning pain in my foot. Falling back onto the bed, lifting my left foot up onto my right thigh, I find the sole of my left foot blackened and my other foot similarly smudged. Good grief, I’ve got to wash my floors. (Although, in March, my feet have been perpetually covered in layers of socks and slippers.) I examine a puffy watery pocket on the ball of my left foot before pulling a sock over it. I’m incapable of analysis before 8am. I head for the kitchen, coffee my soul focus. Phoenix limping.
The day transpires much the same as usual, one distraction to the next. After lunch, I succeed in lulling my daughter into a nap (small victory) and head to my computer. My in-box reveals a letter from the “Institute of Children’s Writing” through which I have been failing miserably at completing a basic children’s story writing course. They state: “We regret that, despite our best efforts to help you, you have been unable to complete the requested assignments. We are hereby closing your course account. Should you wish to re-initiate the course in the future, we will be happy to accommodate your request based on the fee structure provided below….” I leave my office and slouch onto the livingroom couch, the last vestiges of perseverance draining from my core. A new low.
I pick up my latest self-help book from the table beside me and randomly read: “You’re not meant to be perfect, you’re meant to be whole. So, what is there to fear?”. What is there to fear?! This is what I fear: to break open and spill into a million tiny fragments onto the floor of the universe. Frozen shards that I alone must gather up again one-by-one—the never-ending tediousness of stooping, scrounging to pick up little, gorey bits of myself and put them back together, imperfectly. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….” But, my daughter awakens from her slumber and I pick myself up off the couch to get her. After all, life goes on; there’s only so much room for melodrama.
Then, suddenly, the clock reads five and I survey my current state through the eyes of my husband, who will soon arrive home to witness it. Me, unshowered, wearing the same sweatpants as yesterday; my daughter unbathed with lunch on her shirt; the day’s and perhaps yesterday’s dirty dishes unwashed; toys scattered. Adrenalin sets in. William Tell’s finale plays in my head as I race through the house in an attempt to accomplish the tasks of a day in twenty minutes. Phoenix galloping.
Did you notice the “typo” in this section? “Coffee my soul focus” should be “coffee my sole focus”. “Sole” referring to the sole of a foot or “only”. But, in this case, the character’s soul yearns for coffee as much as her physical body so it applies.
For me, the word “slouching” took on a more devious connotation after reading the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. In this section, the quote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….” is also a reference from this poem. You can read the poem by following the Related Posts link below.
This post introduces the novel’s first reference to an extraordinary event, occurring in an otherwise mundane existence. The novel belongs within the genre of Magic Realism. Find out more about the genre of Magic Realism in the related post below.
The year transpires much the same, one distraction to the next.
By day, I split myself in two—half domesticated mom, half professional businesswoman—accomplishing neither whole-heartedly. Perpetually fatigued and scattered. Between ABC’s and client brochures, I dapple in poetry and journaling. Petty narcissistic drivel; who needs critics.
By night, I burn. Every dream a new interpretation of the same theme; flames, searing heat, hot ash. Tired of scrubbing metaphysical black soot from white sheets, I invest in a luxurious charcoal-grey silk bed set, much to my husband’s dismay at the sudden splurge. I defy analysis.
On a bright summer afternoon, I take my daughter outside to chase the sunlight. We walk to the mailbox and I extract from it a single letter, the lack of usual flyers and coupons amplifying its uniqueness.
“Mine, Mommy?” my daughter asks, always eager for any gifts the mailbox may bestow upon her especially.
“No, honey, it’s for Mommy…” I reply absently as I stare down at a familiar, yet unexpected airmail envelope trimmed in yellow-and-green stripes and smattered with stamps.
“Why, Mommy?” my daughter asks as she pulls my hand downward. “Me see.”
“It’s from Brazil, I think,” I observe aloud as I relent to her tugging and I squat down to show her the brightly coloured stamps with “Brasil” down the side and typical airmail trim. “These are Brazil’s colours.”
She grabs the envelope and turns it over. “Birdie!” she exclaims, pointing to another sticker—a return address sticker with a bird illustration and red border. I read the address twice: “52 College Street, Kitchener, ON N2H 5A1”. The top of the sticker has been cut off as well as a small square from between the “52” and “College”.
“It’s…it’s a return address sticker,” I reply faintly. I know that address; I lived in an apartment there over fifteen years ago as a university student. How did an envelope sent from Brazil, addressed to me, come to have a return address sticker on the back from a place I lived almost two decades ago?
I resist opening the envelope until we have returned to our backyard and my daughter plays contentedly. Perched on a garden rock, I carefully split apart the top seam, extract a thin sheet of paper, and open it to reveal two short lines written in elegantly formed blue cursive:
Step out of your prison; it is self-imposed. Leave it to burn behind you, igniting the fires of your imagination and life will follow.
In the days that follow, I carry the mysterious letter with me everywhere, pausing often to re-read it and re-examine the envelope. My nightly dreams of fire evolve: I find myself in a maze of cedar shrubbery, with an arched door ahead. As I move toward it, the high green walls ignite, engulfing me in flame and smoke as I run blindly forward.
On Monday morning, I arrange a sitter for my daughter and drive into downtown Kitchener. My old stomping ground. I park in front of the apartment building I lived in for most of university: 52 College Street. A vibrant energy envelopes me as I step out of my car. My current country home offers peace and quiet but this neighbourhood lives and breathes interesting faces.
I stand in front of the dwellings, surveying the architecture. Two twin, three-storey brick buildings with narrow courtyards, each leading to three separate entrances. The building to the left, a chestnut-brown brick with rounded arched entry embellished with the name “Wales Apartments” in white Edwardian letters. My own building, in red brick with the name “Royal Apartments” over the archway.
I wonder, does my old landlord still keep the place? I head under the archway of my old apartment, through the entrance directly ahead and down a short flight of stairs into the basement. The office door is ajar but I find it empty. With no other plan in mind, I indulgently wander through the building despite the sensation that I’m trespassing. Returning up the stairs, I visit the door of my first student abode, a tiny 300-square-foot apartment at the back of the building.
Then, I return to the outside courtyard and enter the front section of the building through the right-hand door. After a year in the tiny back apartment, a roomier two-bedroom had opened up on the third floor facing the street and I had moved up into it. I feel the same comforting creek as the stairs bare my weight up to the door of my second apartment—the one in which I spent six studious years. The same subtle scent intensifies my nostalgia—earthy, but not dirty (despite that it is)—the smell of bricks and mortar and plaster standing stoically for the last hundred years.
I reach the top landing and pause facing my old door, tempted to knock. But, then I hear the squeak of the apartment entrance opening below and I turn tail and retreat; I’ve trespassed long enough. At the bottom of the stairs, a middle-aged female postal carrier has just opened a set of old brass mailboxes that line the wall inside the doorway with the master key and begun stuffing envelopes and flyers into the compartments.
I hesitantly approach her: “Ahem, I hope you don’t mind the interruption. I’m here trying to solve a bit of a mystery. I received this letter in the mail. But, the return address sticker uses this address.” I pull out the letter from my purse and she willingly takes it.
“It was sent from Brazil, not here,” she states the obvious.
“Yes, I figured that. But, I wondered if you have seen anyone in this building using these kind of return address stickers?”
“No, I only deal with incoming mail. I wouldn’t know if they did. Why is the name and apartment number cut out? Looks like they didn’t want you to know who it was from.”
“No, I guess not. Thanks anyway.”
I return to my car none the wiser for my sleuthing. Sherlock I’m not.
Suggested music accompaniment to this post: Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” – Instrumental with Hook (thanks to Brenton Mosley on YouTube)
Wednesday, July 22, 2009:
My curiosity over the letter’s origin turns to obsession. The postmark from Brazil, the return address sticker from my old apartment building, the eerie reference to fire and self-induced imprisonment, which I had recently described in my journal…. Who could have written such a letter and under what circumstances? The question rests on my pillow, and the letter under it, as I drift off to sleep that night.
At 3am, I awaken to a familiar sensation, heart racing, pajamas damp with sweat, images of fire and smoke still emblazoned on my eyelids. But, this time, mingled with a tingling exhilaration. I search my mind for the details of the dream…the cedar maze, fire and smoke, but then…the sensation of my body rising upward, up, over the flames, floating, swirling on cool night air, like a campfire spark joining stars in the sky.
Quietly, I leave my bedroom, dawning housecoat and slippers as I go. The cat meets me in the hallway, blinking sleepily and pausing to stretch his back legs out behind him as he follows me into my little office, where I sit down and awaken my computer.
Without hesitation, I open a blank document and begin to type…
Gisa Catarina Gertner was born at sea on October 5, 1933, halfway between the province of Tirol, Austria, and the state of Santa Catarina, Brazil….
The phrase “a campfire spark joining stars in the sky.” refers to a poem I wrote for my daughter, Tessa, who was born on July 25, 2009. You can read it by following the “related posts” below to the “Other Works” section.