Dreamscapes of The Virgin
extract from a work in progress
Harare, Zimbabwe, 2000
Looking out of the window, she saw the tangle of wood, metal and leather on the bench. The sight of them made her wince even though, she chided herself, she should be used to them, by now. Her eyes traveled along the length of the verandah, looking for him. She pressed her forehead on the cool glass splattered with the reflection of leaves from the oak and Jacaranda trees, and found him on the bottom step. The early morning sun on that last step - she imagined its warmth on him like a blessing. She watched his head lifting to look at the woodpecker that was determinedly boring away at the old tree, streams of its labor falling on the grass; his head turned from her in profile.
Now Tomas working on that contraption. And she felt the familiar anger and resentment rise up. “What’s the point,” she had said, the only time they had ever had a conversation about it, that first day when he had come to her with it, frightening her.
“You can get something better, Tomas.” She was chiding, rebuking him, scolding him like a child.
She even had an article to show him. A woman with a myoelectric, silicone-covered arm; individual fingers; the woman even had rings on them. She had tried to sell the arm, the hand, to him, make him want it as much as she did. “Better dexterity, more comfortable,” she’d gone on as though she’d tried the thing on herself. Of course he knew all that, what she was saying, but no, no the one he had was just fine. It fitted well, did the job. And what job was that, she could have asked but didn’t, afraid of his answer. It’s monstrous, ugly! she wanted to scream to him. She had never asked him where he had picked it up from - she could not believe that it had actually come from the centre in Lausanne; she’s always had the feeling that it was a flea market find, something fished out from piles of scrap (from the Sunday flea market in Nyon?) or something that had been discovered in the dusty backwaters of a hardware shop, something put together, a Do-It-Yourself project, wretched scraps of metal and leather and wood. Why had he settled for it? Was this a way of punishing himself (her)? Or was he simply being true to himself, Tomas, the keeper of the past, of all things old and broken. Sometimes she wondered if he didn’t see himself now as a kind of relic, an artifact.
Naked, she made sure to touch him there where his limb suddenly stopped, just where the elbow should be, touched him there, kissed him at that place. What was she trying to say? And who to? To him? To herself? “I love you, every single thing about you, even this.” Or was she trying to convince herself of what she was capable of, the extent of her humanness, like touching a leper, the Queen of Hearts. Was she just fighting against her own impulse, revulsion, her fear? He must know these things, sense them. He’d always known, despite herself, who she was.
They had been through so much together, and ever since she had read that report, a week ago now, on the massacres in Matabeleland in the eighties, the report which had come in one of those chain letters attached as a document, which she should never, never have opened, the past, Tomas’s ordeal in the jungle, had erupted in her dreams.
An archeological dig in the depths of the Colombian jungle gone tragically wrong.
He was in that hospital bed in the depths of the jungle, the bandage wound tightly around his stump. He was lying there, his lips moving, his eyes fixed on the picture on the far wall. The hospital was surrounded by government soldiers, helicopters hovering above; everything ready in case the Lord of the Jungle sent his forces to rescue his son who lay on the bed next to Tomas, his former captive, his life blood seeping into the white sheets. On the other side of Tomas, a young boy, still in his soldier’s uniform, Tomas’s would-be rescuer. He must be only seventeen, eighteen. He kept crying out to his mother. Tomas lying on the bed, his lips moving, his eyes fixed on the woman on the wall, dressed in blue, her expression so smug and beatific she had wanted to knock her off the damned wall (and yet somehow the woman seemed to be mocking her), away from Tomas’s beseeching eyes.
These things were true.
He had kept her informed about all the shenanigans at the dig when he’d come back to Bogotá for his three monthly breaks, and she’d been to the site once - a trip which had involved a commercial flight, a helicopter ride over the Andes into the Llanos Orientales where it was all lush grassland between the mountains and forest, a boat, and finally, a three-hour trek in the jungle with morose-looking Indian guides; her nerves had been set on edge by the cries of howler monkeys and the sighting of an alligator - Professor Lyndon Watkins had been away on that visit, drumming up more funds in America, and a possible National Geographic spread. Lyndon’s tantrums. Tomas had filled her in on the professor’s mania. He wanted to find something that would get him on the cover of Time. He wanted to find The Find. The grant was for two years. Two years for them to find something worthy of Professor Lyndon, nothing less than the very first homo sapiens who’d somehow wondered into the thicket of Amazonian jungle and set up home and hearth (blissfully among jaguars, anaconda, alligators…) would do.
It was why they were in Colombia. While she was in Bogotá, doing her teaching thing at the Jesuit-run university, Tomas was there in the jungle digging up his pots and pans, hoping for bone.
Handsome Tomas with his lean limbs, his narrow torso, his intense blue-green eyes, looking at her intently as though if he looked hard enough he’d find her just like he found everything else. If he was patient, skilful and lucky he would have her. In turns she was irritated and grateful for his persistence. She would bury herself deep in some unrecorded territory, so deep that none of his gadgets would sniff her out. Since she had met him, when she thought of herself running away or disappearing she saw herself clawing the earth with her fingers, digging a hole, sinking into it, or she would walk into a cave of some unknown place and in its dark interior, forgotten, simply cease to exist.
When he told her that he was an archaeologist she’d immediately looked at his hands. What did she expect? Crabby, worn hands, mud caked in the nails, the dirt from some exotic site still visible in the lines of his palms. Instead they were clean, remarkably so. She’d taken both his hands, turned them over, looked at them, then observed them as though some movement, disposition, would tell what she needed to know. If she’d seen those hands anywhere else she would have thought, musician, painter, poet, artist. She imagined her mother with hands like that. The fingers impossibly long, slender. And they were hands which scrambled about in the earth. Hands which got dirty, which had to be cleaned by some harsh carbolic soap to get all the ancient dirt and disease out from them, hands that could hold her face, fingers that would graze her eyelids, her lips her chin. He was always clean, even fastidiously so. Although she insisted on giving him an Indiana Jones persona he was in fact the opposite. He was cautious. He planned his trips, strictly followed his itinerary. He did not throw things into suitcases, rush off to the airport at the last minute, be swept away by some adventure. He cared about how he looked, took time about getting dressed, made conscious decisions about what to wear. He ironed his shirts (and hers) and sometimes his jeans. He rolled his socks neatly into balls and always wore matching ones. He folded his underwear. He never seemed to have that sweet, musky smell of cell activity, exertion, body fluids. He was odour proof. He wrote her beautiful letters, poems. Because she often felt bewildered by his calm, his seeming lack of ambition, his contentment, she made fun of him, his profession, the things he considered important. She thought, with growing shame, how ridiculous she had made him feel; how he’d let her get away with it which had made her even more scornful, daring. First she had done it in private, then with his friends, in restaurants, at parties.
The thing was she was afraid. Pathologically afraid, she told herself. Night after night she woke up certain that there was someone in the house; she heard footsteps, a door creaking open, steps on the roof... Last night, Tomas had found the sleeping pills she’d wheedled out of the pharmacists, asked her about them and she’d told him that she used them very rarely, when she was alone. The truth was she’d been using them every night for two weeks now. They allowed her the little sleep she got.
She was in the bus…. she not they… she would try and make herself see that she was alone in that bus, going to him. But when she turned it was Tomas on the seat next to her, lifting her hand in his, to his lips. But that couldn’t be right. She had left Bogota’, rushed to him. But why, why was he always in the bus, with her, as if it was a trip they had taken together, how could she possibly conflate it with others?
He had woken up this morning with dirt in his mouth; the taste of it so strong, the feel of grit on his tongue still there so that he had actually got out of bed, careful not to disturb Isobel, to check in the bathroom mirror. But, of course, his mouth had been clean. He had not been burrowing about. Every morning, for eleven days now, he has woken with the dirt in his mouth. He knew what it meant; a longing for his past life, his hands working away at the ground, patiently loosening soil, sifting through it, working to unearth whatever it was that was hiding below.
In the early days he had had visions, images, dreams of his arm. The hand, just lying there on the stone floor. When he woke up he was not gasping for breath, shouting or crying out, his body was not drenched in sweat; nor did his eyes snap open into the darkness into which his hand had vanished. No, there was none of that. He did not disturb Isobel. His eyes simply opened as though he had merely been thinking with them closed. He felt perhaps a bit thirsty or hungry. He would carefully get out of bed, make his way to the bathroom or toilet. There was no despair or rage, just the certain knowledge that the hand was there in his sleep. He was grateful. Once, the hand was suspended in the air, held there it seemed by string, no, something tougher, less yielding, wire then like a Salvador Dali painting. He fixated on certain details; compared the hand to what he remembered, what he thought he remembered, moles, bits of hair, crinkles, scratches, a ring.
The image of his arm hanging askew from his body felt almost visceral, as if he could really feel it there, which was the strangest thing, for it was the first time in a long while he had had that sensation, the ache of his limb, the searing pain, how exquisite it was, to feel that.
He knew how much it infuriated Isobel, this arm that he had finally settled on after weeks of trying on different types in the clinics in Lausanne and Zurich, it had been lying in one of the backrooms, and the assistant had brought it out to show him how much progress had been made in the field of prosthetics- this one, he’d said, was the very best in the early 20th century, German engineering as it was then, and much to the assistant’s alarm, Tomas had said that was the one he wanted. He liked the fact that it had been used before, a donation; it had been worn in, it had a history.
Sometimes a student asked about it. He would begin his tale with the sweep of a novelistic touch. One late morning in August, in a patch of South American jungle - how the stone floor so easily, so quickly yielded to become the undergrowth that he had whispered in Isobel’s ears those days she lay asleep, a kind of self-induced coma, paralysis the doctor had called it, in a hospital in Bogotá, airlifted they’d been from Tierradentro. He’d stayed there at her bedside embedding her with another version of horror that was a fairy tale, her father there too, listening. How easy it was really in this land of a thousand years of solitude, of magic realism, where reality could be so fantastical it could only be imagined as fiction, of its drug lords who were jailed in palaces on hill tops with their own private zoos and beauty queens.
An archeological dig gone wrong.
‘Listen, Isobel, I was in the tent looking over some notes, when the guerrillas came...’
They were Isobel’s missing days. Thirteen days. And he gave them to her.
‘You were in Bogota, teaching, remember…’
He was sitting in a wheelchair- it felt as if he had been in the clinic for a lifetime-when her father, the renowned war photographer, Richard Self, came. It was the first time he had ever met him.
‘How is she?’ Tomas had asked him.
‘She’s—she—she’s not doing well. She’s not eating. She won’t talk. She-’
He stopped and looked at Tomas apologetically. Tomas could see why. He was talking to a man who had had his hand freshly hacked off. Even though he was talking about his daughter he must have suddenly heard himself and thought the words sounded very much like self pity.
‘I’m sorry, Tomas.’
‘Isobel,’ he said. ‘You were going to say…’
Richard looked at him, and Tomas nodded, gave him permission.
‘She wants her mother. She keeps calling out for her. Mummy, mummy, mummy…’
She says that, ‘mummy’?’
‘Yes…it’s as if she’s regressed to being a child, that eight year old–’
He stopped again. But this time it felt to Tomas it was because he’d said, acknowledged something to a stranger, something that was a secret.
‘When she was eight years old?’
Tomas knew that Richard Self would speak. He was here talking to his son-in-law, for the first time. Richard Self was ridden with regret and guilt. He would speak.
‘Yes, Tomas, something happened when Isobel was eight. I don’t know if I should–’
‘Please, go on.’
He sat there listening, astounded that he had not know this about Isobel.
‘It’s as if she’s gone back to that moment - the last time she was so helpless. I don’t know if she can take it, Tomas.’
The last was a plea, an appeal that had first angered him, and then later he knew that Richard Self had been right, and that he was the only one who could really help Isobel, who could clear a path for her to follow. So that when, months later, she had the breakdown, when she had started screaming and she couldn’t stop, he knew what he had do as she lay on the hospital bed. He had to give her memory.