The Practice of Goodness

Stories, essays, meditations, fragments. Artist: Georgia O'Keefe

If I tell you I love you

This story was first published in M/C Journal

1.‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

2 .‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I heard your cry through the open window. I sat in the autumn sun, under the peach tree in the courtyard your father and I laid, brick by brick, during the hot summer before you were born. I heard your cry coming from the yellow nursery, through the white window frames and the floating cotton curtains. When I heard that cry, milk flooded my breasts. They swelled and stung, my nipples rose up hard and sprouted fountains; the front of my pink shirt grew dark and soaked. All this, at the sound of your waking cry.’

3. I offer my breast to my lover. Astride him, I lean forward and lower a round and rosy globe into his waiting mouth. He accepts only its hard tip, while delicately fingering the breast’s curves that are swollen, not with milk this time, but with desire. ‘Suck,’ I whisper and he does, noisily like the babies used to, kneading and fondling.

4. When he said ‘I’ll have to do something about it,’ he meant leave the others who had claims on his affections and take up with me in a permanent way. That was how he understood love, as responsibility, and long term goals. I was uninterested in these matters, young and with no sense of the future. ‘Fuck me,’ I whispered and he dabbled the tips of his fingers ever so slowly, in the wet flowing out of me down there.

5. He watched me. He watched me arch and open my mouth and cry a little and he flicked his tongue against mine, all the while dabbling with the most delicious rhythm, and flicking and whispering ‘Is that good? Do you like that, does it feel nice?’ until I cried out loud, and cried tears too. All that love flooding and stinging me. Stinging and flooding me.

6. The child suckled, but with less urgency, drowsy against my breasts. Milk trickled from the corner of his mouth. I stroked his full cheeks with the tips of my fingers. Counted his toes again as I did every day through the weeks after his birth. Kissed his fair brow, ran my tongue along his soft, fat arms. Fell asleep in the autumn sun underneath the peach tree in the courtyard we’d made. Fell asleep with the milky, snuffling infant heavy in my arms, and my breasts bared to the afternoon breeze. Fell asleep and dreamed I was in heaven.

7. It wasn’t always thus.

8. For example. My mother, on a carpet of bluebells in a northern forest at midsummer in soft, dappled light made love, and subsequently found herself with child. Her first sexual encounter, a stroke of bad luck if ever there was one. Family shame ensued. A short-lived marriage. A humiliating return to her father’s house with a tiny infant. My soft, fat arms, and my ten curled toes wrapped up tight in the blanket of disgrace.

9. This was only the beginning of the repercussions of that unplanned act, that reckless moment in the bluebells. My mother’s white dress stained bluebell blue and red with her blood. My father’s reassurances that came to nothing.

10. In fairy tales it is never the mother who hovers, heavy with bad intentions, around the growing girl. In fairy tales, it is always the stepmother, as if the notion of a mother consumed by dark passions towards her daughter is too abhorrent for fairy tales to bear. But someone has to bear it.

11. Children. Love blindly, and suffer, and always look out from their being with hope.

12. Grown up, I lie in my bedroom, alone. It’s late afternoon, and staring out of my window at the darkening sky I see the wicked witch of the west with her pointed hat and her black hair and her long black garments. I watch her fly across clouds made bleeding and orange by the setting sun. It seems to me that she is snarling at me, sending out rays of malevolence towards me where I lie on my white bed. ‘I did not take your life!’ I tell her. ‘I did not take your life!’

13. When finally I sleep I dream, not of the bad fairy, but of sex. It’s a long time since I’ve been with a man. My nighttime lover is a stranger. The love we make is sweet with greed. It trembles tender and dangerous between us, with lucidity too brilliant to be contained by fairy tales. I wake at dawn in the midst of orgasm. The encounter has about it a perfection that I’ve never known in waking life.


14. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but I remember to this day how her hair hung smooth, like black silk, like black satin, like midnight velvet, across her shoulders, and down the length of her back. I didn’t know my mother’s breasts, but to this day I imagine them as white, as cream, as milk, as soft, as perfumed, as tender, as giving. I imagine them as rosy globes within which love might dwell, waiting for me to suckle, waiting for me to drink from them the secret lessons they contain, the lessons that will set me right in life.

15. What does it mean when you have stolen your mother’s life, I wonder, as I prepare myself for the day. Is it a crime for which one may never atone?

                                        
16. ‘If I tell you I love you,’ he said, ‘then I’ll have to do something about it.’

17. ‘Best not, then,’ I advised and turned my back on him, the better to grieve my losses and count my blessings and dream my dreams.

18. In another lifetime, I saw him in a car park. We didn’t speak. Though I wanted to, though I made those movements towards him that signal the beginnings of an encounter, he waved me back and gestured with his silver head towards a shadowed figure in the front seat of the car. I understood. I shrugged my bag more securely across my shoulders and walked on. My head held high. That night I remembered everything from years ago, with little or no regret, and with a warm delight that I had once known these things, and yet escaped with my life.


19. ‘When you were an infant,’ I would like to say to my son, ‘I took you in our bed, you slept between your father and me and in the mornings when we woke my breasts were full and aching. I offered them to you, and when you had finished, and fallen back into your infant dreams, I gave them to your father. These acts of love I count as some of the most generous I have ever performed. Your gratitude and your contentment, your small sighs, your unforgettable gaze, all these let me know the best of everything, at least for a while.’


20. The floor of my room is made of pale polished wood, and two brightly patterned oriental carpets lie across it, adding warmth and comfort. On the low table beside my bed there’s a small pile of books, a pair of reading glasses, a blue vase holding several stems of iris I bought at the Sunday markets, and a reading lamp with an engraved glass shade. I stay alone now, in another kind of love.

21. Sometimes I lie in this calm room, on my white bed, and through the window I watch the wicked witch in her long black garments that are like midnight velvet, like black satin, that flow out behind her, smooth as silk. I watch her as she flies back and forth across the darkening sky.

©Jennifer Wilson 2011

Fragments…

Shattered beings are best represented by bits and pieces

Rainer-Maria Rilke

For the babies and the big kids I love

Forever Young

Written by Bob Dylan


May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you

May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
May you stay forever young.

On the back step

When I woke she was already up, sitting in the sunlight on the back step. I looked around the one large room we called home. There were three kerosene lamps on op shop tables, and three armchairs with flattened cushions in sun-faded blue. There was a Turkish rug that had once been valuable. There was a bowl for washing up, and a Primus stove. A rusting bar fridge. Our clothes hung on wooden pegs on the wall beside our bed.

I felt hot and inadequate. I should be able to give her more than this, I thought. Especially now.

I looked back at her. She was twirling a strand of hair around her fingers, and staring across the clearing into the rainforest. She wore her old pink dressing gown, loosely tied, and her feet were bare.

I lay in our bed, naked and thinking. Mostly I thought that I was not good enough for her, or the child we’d made. Then I kicked off the covers. I got up quickly and walked over to her. She smiled, but not at me. Her gaze stayed on the clearing, dotted at this time of the year with pink and yellow orchids, and rings of mushrooms like a fairy glade in a child’s picture book. Her face had grown plump with the pregnancy. Her breasts were softly full. I sat down beside her and she rested her head on my shoulder. Her fingers curled round the belt of her robe. I kissed her hair. I thought that later I would walk alone in the rainforest, and there I would find the answers to the questions I did not yet know how to ask.

I heard many birds calling, the sharp clarity of the whip bird, and others I couldn’t name, though she could. She knew them all. After a while, she raised her mouth to me. Lately she smelled of lemons, the fruit from which she carved chunks that she ate at odd times of the day. I kissed her. I smelled her lemony breath, her cleansed tongue, the sharp tang of her. She kissed me back, generously, as she always did when we made love.

No one had ever touched me so sweetly.

I sank to my knees between her legs, pushing aside the worn cloth of her gown. I saw the veins running like blue rivers on a map, towards her swollen nipple. I put my mouth to her breast. She held my head while I sucked. She stroked my hair as I nursed like an infant, like the child I could feel turning slowly in her belly. I stopped my nursing and looked up at her. Her eyes were closed, but when she felt my gaze she opened them and smiled.

The bush smelled so sweet after the night’s rains.

She rested her back against the doorpost.

I put my head between her legs and kissed her. She smelled different there since the pregnancy. A strong, pungent scent announced her situation long before we sought any formal confirmation.

I stroked her belly. The infant heaved under my palms. I wanted to see inside her. I wanted her skin to be transparent so I could see our child in its unborn state. I kissed the infant through its mother’s skin. I wanted to lick away the thickness I wanted it to melt under my tongue like the coating on a sugared sweet.

I helped her up and led her to our bed. She was wet and I easily found my way inside. The child moved. I wanted to go more deeply into this mystery that had changed her eyes and the way she looked at me. That took her away from me and into a secret self I’d never suspected. She looked at me with love it’s true, as always. But now there was something else. She had removed herself. A distance in her gaze warned me she had other beings on her mind.

§

The night before I’d dreamed that she’d come to me in my sleep from far away, and kissed my forehead. Then she lay down with me, and her lips made light whisperings against my cheek. We breathed our love into each other’s open mouths.

‘Are you afraid?’ she’d whispered.

‘Not with you here,’ I replied.

‘I can’t stay you know.’ She licked at my cheek with the tip of her tongue.

‘I know. I know you can’t stay.’

‘But it’s all right for a little while, for just a little while, and then you’ll have to do without me, you know?’

‘I know.’

She stroked me, in my dream, my cock and my balls, and she lapped up my tears.

I woke to the sounds of a midnight storm, the alarmed creak of trees thrashed by a high wind, hard rain on our cabin roof. I woke in fear, and sorrow. I looked at her sleeping on her side, her hand on her belly. I knew that I would not care to live in this world if I lost her.

Towards morning as the storm settled, I fell back into jagged sleep.

§

 I liked to watch her when she bathed. Her ritual had lately changed. There was a new self-absorption in the slow circles she made with the washcloth across her belly and breasts. She smoothed oil into her skin as if in homage, to her shining body, to her unborn child.

There were times, usually in the early mornings, when she asked me to wash and oil her and I did this as she lay back in the bath, that absent smile on her face, with me and gone from me.

§

I rested in her now, and listened to the forest. She moved around me, tightening then relaxing her silk and velvet place. This pretty place, I thought as I lay in there, the silk and velvet stroking me, and all the while she caressed my tongue with her fingertips. My mouth opened to her, this is where you are like me, she whispered as she stroked inside my lips. My sudden swell against her textured walls, not yet, she said, my love, as she rose up to meet me. Her fingers left my tongue slowly, as if with regret, and roamed instead through my hair. I held myself above her on my hands. And looked into her face.

‘Do you love me?’ I asked, and she whispered that she did.

‘Let me in then,’ I begged.

Even as I asked I knew what I wanted was impossible. She moved against me, murmuring. She was close to her moment. Suddenly I felt fierce. I moved hard into her. I thought perhaps I would never have her back with me.  I thought she’d gone forever into her absorption.

‘Please,’ I whispered. ‘Please.’

I didn’t know about my tears, until she wiped them from my cheeks with her finger.

The whip birds called. I got up from her and crossed to the basin. I looked at myself in the cracked mirror on the shelf above the bench.

‘Help me,’ I said, but under my breath, in the privacy of my mind so she wouldn’t hear me. ‘Please help me.’

§

The child is fair, like her, with blue eyes that seem to cut through all my defences. She sleeps in her bassinet beside my bed. I often wake in the night, just to make sure she is breathing. I see her mother in every part of her. In her fingers, and in her long, curled toes. In her lips, rose red and glistening. In her small, transparent ears.

I am doing the best I can to stay in this world, though I have not yet convinced myself that this is where I should be. Then I look at her, my daughter, my life now. And I know the truth is that I cannot leave her. That daily, I must find the ways to live and breathe and carry on.

I sit on the back step, our child in my arms. I hear the sharp, clear calls of the whip bird, and others I can’t identify.

‘Your mother,’ I tell our daughter while she stares at me, and her small hands make irregular, drunken lurches at my untidy beard, ‘your mother knew the name of every bird in our forest.

Your mother knew all their calls. Your mother would teach you everything, if only she were here with us.’

My child smiles, toothless and trusting me.

‘Everything,’ I tell her, and I bend my head to kiss her brow.

©Jennifer Wilson 2011

I like this

Attics of my life

Written by  Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead

In the attics of my life, full of cloudy dreams unreal.
Full of tastes no tongue can know, and lights no eyes can see.
When there was no ear to hear, you sang to me.

I have spent my life seeking all that’s still unsung.
Bent my ear to hear the tune, and closed my eyes to see.
When there was no strings to play, you played to me.

In the book of love’s own dream, where all the print is blood.
Where all the pages are my days, and all the lights grow old.
When I had no wings to fly, you flew to me, you flew to me.

In the secret space of dreams, where I dreaming lay amazed.
When the secrets all are told, and the petals all unfold.
When there was no dream of mine, you dreamed of me.


My Twin Brother

First published in Coastlines 3, New Writings from Southern Cross

My twin brother has the softest lips of any man I ever met. He lives in a house with several people: a poet, a teacher, a traveller and Veronica, who has the basement. When I visit my twin I always go with some uncertainty, as I never know who might be home. Sometimes this is pleasant. At other times it provokes my anxiety, especially if I’ve already decided who I want to see.

The walls of the traveller’s room are papered with posters of exotic places. His bed is strewn with maps. This time he is plotting his route to the centre of our country. It will be a long and thirsty journey, and I am not invited. The traveller tells me stories of places he’s already visited. He has an extraordinary memory. He recalls the details of meals and women from twenty years ago.

Sometimes the traveller clears the maps and guidebooks from his unmade bed. We lie down, and I become a foreign country.

The traveller is always dusty. He has a beard, and a small bag packed at all times in which he keeps everything he needs for a journey. He wears jeans and sandals and owns almost nothing. The traveller says:

‘I would marry you. I would be your husband.’

But the traveller knows a husband is not what I want. Perhaps that’s why he says it.

Sometimes when I visit only the poet is at home. He invites me to his room on the first floor. It is sparsely furnished and there is a typewriter on its own special table. Beside it are piles of paper with black type crossed out in green. His handwriting is small and difficult to decipher. The poet is clean shaven and smells of a particularly pleasant sandalwood shaving cream. His skin is soft. I enjoy placing my cheek against his. His quotations stay in my mind; they are always appropriate to every occasion. The poet invites me to join him on his mattress in the corner by the window. His language is romantic. He says:

‘There is a part of you I cannot reach. You have a secret.’

I am silent, as befits one with a secret.

When I visit Veronica I must walk down a flight of dark stone steps to reach her basement. Veronica cannot be visited without invitation. She lives the life of a recluse. She is a moody and unpredictable creature whose presence fills the whole house, but who is rarely seen. Veronica is in love with my twin. She has moments of motherly concern for me in which she straightens my jacket, or adjusts the strap of my bag so it won’t cut into my shoulder. Veronica’s basement is a night place, decorated with scarves and shawls of brilliantly dyed silk. There are candles in brass holders; she burns little cones of sandalwood incense. Her rugs are in colours of deep red and midnight blue. Her furniture is low: she sits on cushions. There are bars on the windows of her basement, and double locks on all her doors. I don’t know what she does all night and day.

Veronica has never been known to cry, though from time to time she flies into terrible rages. Sometimes upstairs we can hear the rumbles of her fury seeping through the floorboards. Then everyone goes quiet. The poet retires to his room, the traveller to his guidebooks, the teacher to his attic where many assignments await his attention. Then I know it’s time for me to leave.

My twin is rarely home. I love him most in this household, in this world. When we meet, we spend our time tangled and wet on the bed in his room in the middle of the house. My twin and I fold our arms and legs around each other. We tell jokes. We have competitions in which we good-naturedly try to outwit one another. When I look into the eyes of my twin, at the times when they are very close to mine, he says:

‘What can you see?’

and I say:

‘I can see me.’

Then we blink and shift our focus a little so that we can see one another. We are practicing. We are trying to see ourselves and each another at the same time. This is not easy.

I’m not very fond of the teacher and never visit his room. He is pedantic, and I can’t reach him. He wears small glasses on the end of his nose and patronises me. I don’t understand his jokes, studded as they are with references I’ve never heard of, and he acknowledges no one’s wisdom but his own. He thinks Veronica should leave the basement. He is very clear on this, as he is on almost everything. He has an air of authority that comes from without, not within, therefore I don’t trust him.

He never speaks to Veronica. He pretends she doesn’t exist. I can tell this infuriates her and she sets up particularly dreadful rumblings sometimes when she knows he’s home. Up there in his attic they barely reach him. I imagine that his vast knowledge has not made the necessary journey from his head to his heart, and so is useless.

I’ve been visiting the household for nearly five years now. Lately things have been changing, and not for the better. The traveller, though his bag is packed and his routes settled, seems to have been seized by a kind of inertia and isn’t going anywhere, barely out the front door. The poet hasn’t written anything for weeks, and spends his time drawing intricate patterns on his writing paper. The teacher is as always, only more so.

But Veronica in her basement seems to have lost her mind. She won’t eat, hardly sleeps. Her dark eyes are bloodshot and circled with grey. Nothing she says makes sense to me. She growls that they won’t let her out, that they’re suffocating her, but they all assure me that she’s quite free to come and go as she pleases.

‘No, I’m not,’ she snarls when I pass on this information. ‘There’s more than one way of locking someone up.’

I don’t know what’s happening or what to do about it. My twin has been absent for weeks and can’t be consulted. This is unfortunate: he’s been known to reach Veronica when no one else can, and she’s certainly happier when he’s around.

‘If they don’t let me out soon,’ Veronica threatens, ‘I’m going to kill them all.’

The teacher says he insists, absolutely insists, that she be taken to a hospital where they know how to manage this kind of thing. Then he shuts himself up in his attic, saying he won’t put up with any further interruptions. The poet and the traveller look sad, and terribly tired. I lie down with the poet on his mattress and we make love a little, but our hearts aren’t in it. The poet talks about finding a new profession since it seems he’s dried up. The traveller says one place is much the same as another so why bother? Depression settles over the household, while Veronica rumbles more and more frequently in her basement. I fret for my twin.

The next time I visit Veronica, she takes a set against me as well as the men. She says I’m noisy, and not serious minded. She says I don’t understand anything, I’m a stupid woman and why don’t I just go away and fuck someone, as that’s what I’m best at.

‘You’re not a patch on your twin!’ she yells. ‘Hard to believe you are twins!’

Then she throws a brass candlestick at me. Fortunately it hits the wall. I decide to stay away for a while.

A few nights later my twin visits me. This is the first time he’s ever come to my house. I answer the doorbell and there he is, looking worried and a little nervous. We go straight to my bed and lie there under the quilt. A full moon shines through the bedroom window onto our faces. We hold one another close.

‘I’m going away,’ he says to me.

I want to know why, where, how, and when will he be back. He refuses all of my questions. He kisses me with his soft lips.

‘Is it because of Veronica?’ I ask.

And he looks at me with an intensity of expression very like Veronica’s, and for a moment his eyes look dark like hers, instead of their usual pale blue. Then he strokes my hair in the motherly way Veronica used to sometimes adopt, when she wasn’t enraged and against us all. Then he touches my breast, like the poet, and he touches my belly, like the traveller mapping a route, and he looks wise, like the teacher delivering a lesson. Then we look at ourselves in each other’s eyes. After a while I realise he’s entered me so gently I was hardly aware of what he was doing. I don’t know how long we lie like that. Now and again he breaks our gaze and kisses me.

I fall asleep. When I wake my twin has gone. So has the moon, and the sky is light with breaking day. The impression of his head on the pillow next to mine, and the faintest smell of sandalwood, are all that is left to remind me that he was here, and won’t be anymore.

I don’t go out for a long time, not to the other house, or to movies, or to classes. Something has happened, and it will take time to understand.

Then I hear that Veronica has burned down the other house. In it were herself, the poet, the traveller and the teacher. There was no sign of my twin. People ask me if I know where he is.

‘He was in the house,’ I tell them.

They think I don’t understand. They explain gently that he couldn’t have been because there’s no trace of his remains.

‘He wouldn’t have left remains,’ I tell them and they shake their heads.

Losing my twin is like losing an arm or a leg. The missing part aches and itches long after it’s been removed to some hospital incinerator or pickling jar. I miss the poet and the traveller and Veronica as well. In his absence I can even find something to miss about the teacher. I salvaged a few things from the fire. Some postcards, an anthology of poetry, a half written paper on women in Shakespeare, and one of Veronica’s brass candlesticks.

After some weeks I began to dream about them, singly and together. But it was my twin who visited most frequently. Sometimes, travelling through a place of great beauty, I thought I saw him.  I thought how he would enjoy what I was seeing. I thought we would probably have stopped beside a river at the bottom of a deep green valley and laid down together in the grass.

At the times I dreamed about Veronica, I always woke up crying. Veronica, who never cried when she was alive, wept her way through my dreams like an abandoned child. Observing her from a distance were the poet, the traveller and the teacher. None of them ever approached to offer comfort.

These dreams lasted for many months. Finally they began to lessen. The relics from the fire I put away in a box in the attic. Then I discovered a desire to see the world through the eyes of the traveller. The poet led me to other mysterious realities. From Veronica, I got the tears she never cried. And the teacher left a vast store of unassimilated knowledge.

As for my twin, he never really left me. I hear him sometimes on quiet nights. I sit up in bed to listen, and to remember who I am.

©Jennifer Wilson 2011

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