One of my books tells of a story, a folk tale. About a giant kneeling down into the ocean out of grief. He kneeled down for so long that nature climbed its back, his skin turned to sand and the people started to live on his head. And suddenly he became an island and the people forgot all about the giant. No one asks why he is there—it’s obvious. No one pushes him out of the ocean.
And the people wouldn’t want the giant to leave. Their houses stand on top of him. Wild deer and boars and hedgehogs live in his forests, in summer the daisies bloom from his skin.
Your hair smells of daisies when you embrace me. You must see them every day, the deer and the hedgehogs.
From behind the window I can see them too. Every now and then a faint bit of sunlight touches my cheek. Sometimes distant, neighboring sounds reverberate through the walls. But it never takes long before my gaze fades back inside. And I am here again.
Inside all is soft. A blue carpet in the color of the outside sky, turned cloudy due to wear and tear over the years. A squeaky, shiny wooden floor. Dull skratches and indents in its varnish. A dining table with a wooden top. The legs of chairs underneath, fringes of a cotton tablecloth.
My books all around me, in piles, lining the walls.
A rudimentary wall next to the kitchen—useless bones, remains of the life of a previous owner. My house is a whale, I think. Every now and then you find some decaying traces of the past in a corner.
In a storm the door creaks in its hinges, the glass windows rattle in their frames, the tiles in the garden sink back into the mud and dirt like frogs. When it’s windy the house is a ghost nestling in all of the forgotten corners, singing.
When it’s quiet the house is an island, secretly, softly.
Every now and then I think: I will never leave this place.
I try it sometimes, when you’re not here. One hand on the table, the other on the kitchen island, my feet in the sea between them. I press myself up: an abused ballet dancer practicing their form at a barre, my toes dragging across the floor. First I swing back and forth a bit, but then I only hold myself up, my flesh hanging from my bones. I am a gymnast who simply chooses to let her legs dangle, I then think, merely delaying the moment of dismount and enjoying the feeling of weightlessness for just one more moment. But then my arms grow tired. Carefully I sink back into the sea.
Sometimes the sea is right underneath you. It’s when you lift me up just a little, when I can do nothing but hang my weight in your arms. I can’t keep myself upright because of you, but at last I stand tall, because of you. I feel light as a feather, because you smile at me, your eyes carrying a rare shimmer. And I feel stiff as a board, because I am so, so tired.
The edges of your tarot set slowly crumble in your hands, I see the cardboard fading to dust when you read the cards for me. You always say: the World and the Fool aren’t as different as they seem: one of them is the start of a journey, the other one the end. The inside correlates with everything outside.
I don’t think I believe in tarot, but I can’t seem to get rid of the World and the Fool when I run away, roaming down the streets, running uphill, downhill, everything moving past me in a blur, and I can’t stop myself, I fly, the ground smashing into my feet. At dusk I see the streets fade into shadow, only the windows that still reflect the sky light up: the earth turns dark, but the sky remains lit, and then the people come home, gratefully peel the day’s work from their skin. And then I see all of that happen, see it reflecting in the faces of the people hiding in their coats, walking with determined step on their way to a not yet by curtains obscured interior life, tucked away in the houses passing me, the smells wafting in my direction, in the distance someone turns on the light, the sound of a children’s laugh, just out of reach, a hint of lives beyond the facade. I recognise it but I don’t understand it, I just smile, foolishly and in no time all of that lies behind me. Sometimes I hear a scream, somewhere in a house and I wonder whether I should stop, maybe call someone or help out but I can’t seem to remember where it came from and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to find it back, everything is miles away, and I keep running.
When I cannot possibly run any further, I return home, out, of, breath, panting, and then you open the door for me and smile in a way I don’t understand. And you ask me how far I went today. Whether it was cold. What the world smelled like. What they did, the people from outside.
I tell you everything—or I try, because it is hard to remember things when they swipe past you in a blur—I tell you about the floods of people, about the air, about how I felt the warmth in my legs plowing me through stone and sand and dust, forcing my body through it all, against sweat and cramps and pain swimming upstream, just trying to not fall back into a life that I can’t distance myself from.
Like David Foster Wallace, you once said, like the water. I didn’t get it. You explained: there are two fish swimming along, and then an older fish swims by and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ The other two fish swim on for a bit and then one says to the other: ‘What the hell is water?’
You were right. I see the water when I am running. And every time I can’t help but wonder whether you wouldn’t want to see it too, the water. Because you secretly sniff the scent out of my hair, hang on my every word, look over my shoulder into the world that I just fell out of.
You don’t run away, your legs don’t run at all. I know that. But your hermit’s life was there earlier, even before your legs stopped working. We didn’t know each other then. You wouldn’t leave the house, people would open your windows, tug at your sleeves, tell you: just come along, you’ll feel better! But you knew it wouldn’t make you feel better. People cried, argued with you, over you, for you, grieved for you, tried to lure you out, back into the world. But you wouldn’t.
Perhaps you long for whatever I bring back from that place, rather than the place itself. I don’t know, I don’t understand it, but I do know that I long for it with all my heart, long for the moment the door slams open and you are there and ask me about the day. It is the most precious thing I own, that moment.
You look at me a certain way when you return. As usual the world in your hair, on your cheeks, in your eyes, sifts away, condenses into the hallway in all its colors and cold and sound. I want to close the door, but I hesitate. One hand touches the wall. Your eyes are skittish and wild, an animal’s eyes.
What? I say. Your gaze reflects in mine. But you shake your head, smile a bit. Look at me again. You always do that the first few seconds.
Was it cold? I say.
Foggy, you then say, dew in the air. But it felt good.
Good! I say. I mean it.
Today I pulled the Tower. A sudden change, a strike of lightning in a clear sky. But nothing ever changes.
Only you. You are happy. Then furious. You cry, or roar with laughter—all very sudden. I never quite know what to do with it. And you long for so much. Oftentimes you are restless. Something cooking inside of you, you toss and turn all night. And I feel your gaze pass me, fall back onto the windows, into the world out there. I try to understand it, I really try. But it is hard.
The next morning you say: there’s something in my head, a sound.
Is it someone? Did you meet someone? Someone from outside, someone now echoing back and forth in your mind, parasiting?
I wonder if you will leave me. I never say it out loud, that thought crossing my mind every so often. It’s not even true. I know that.
Because you always say: the people from out there exist in a haze, I run too fast to see them—and I can’t run slow, the rhythm wouldn’t be right.
My rhythm is only you. You, when you leave. Then time passes. And then it’s you, again, when you return, when you’re back with me.
Sometimes I try it, when you’re not here. Going far, like you. I crawl across the floor, lie down on my back. Put my arms underneath my head. Precisely in the way you slowly start losing the feeling in your arms and they start to tingle. My arms become two dead limbs.
I close my eyes. I hold my breath. I stay as still as possible.
And suddenly all around me is the sea, in me grows a forest, the animals walk my skin, I smell the daisies.
But the door slams open. It’s only you. You carry the scent. When you arrive that night, around dinnertime, I can’t help but smile. Normal people time.
You smile back at me when you enter the room. I feel my arms burn as I get up, your kiss on my skin. Silly, I think out loud. I smile a bit more. But then I put my arms around you, tightly, and I never want you to run away again. I know you have to, but I don’t say anything. I just let myself drown in the ideal of existing in this moment with you, eternally. We rust away. Like my legs. Like the edges of my tarot cards. Like the people outside, fading away in the mist.
I know you have to run away, I know you have to.
Once I ran so far away that I passed the dyke—I am so good at running that I always go far, as you say, that I run hundreds of thousands of miles, through the streets of the city and past the streets of the suburbs and when I still haven’t had enough past the fields of grass. I never have enough.
On top of the dyke water flows differently, you know, reality comes in waves and in the time between the waves there was a sound that day—suddenly—a monotonous drumming that caught me off guard. A human figure stood somewhere in the distance, in the slowly flooding wad fields on the other side of the dyke, and carried a drum as big as their upper body. Bare feet, the beat of their drum echoing across the plains. Not another human in sight. I found it odd, at first, the way they paced back and forth, back and forth again, and then the continual drumming, slow and tedious—maybe they weren’t in their right mind, I wondered, they kept on drumming, continually, drumming and drumming and drumming. The sound deformed, forced itself into my mindscape, reverberating, forever and ever, an eternal mantra—and I ran away, confused.
I told you about it once, though you might not remember. That’s OK. You said: like Ursula Le Guin, like the child from Omelas. Maybe the drummer drums the world back into tune. Maybe they cannot stop, for the world would cease to exist.
There was a smile in the corner of your mouth that day, I don’t know why I still remember that. Sometimes I wonder whether you are the world and I am the drummer. And who came first.
I don’t want to say it, but sometimes I want you to stay indoors. Because if you do, your eyes shimmer with excitement when you see me. It’s selfish, I know. But is it selfish to feel myself grow within your gaze, feel myself grow larger than me, to find myself in the way you look at me, instead of lose myself in the outside haze? I have to keep running, because I long for your starry eyes when I return.
Maybe I am the world and you are the drummer.
As I run, I see how people start forgetting they are just like me, how they forget they have a body, a physical body that sweats and pants and hurts and exists, teary-eyed, consists of tissue and moisture. And when they suddenly see such a thing pass them they wonder whether it is even real or not, whether they see a ghost—they cannot understand they are the same, they are the ghost, wrapped in fabric that doesn’t fit, that they are trapped in a body too. I don’t know if you are trapped too, Farida, if your body sweats and hurts. Sometimes I am not sure about it.
Every so often I meet others like me. There’s the runners of course, but sometimes I cross runaways like me. I recognise them instantly, the runaways: they don’t run for fun, but because they have to. They’re the ones that started in a life that once fitted them, wearing clothing tailor-made for that previous life, but what’s now merely a fossil flapping around their ankles and elbows, never really belonging to them anymore. As if they once existed out of something else and now carry with them the dead remains of that something. Because they subtly dissolve into that other life, the runaway life, in which everything turns to mist and blurs away and flashes by.
When I ran away from the dyke that day, it felt the same, like something tugging at me from another life, and yet it didn’t exist. I felt the weight of my clothes hanging from my shoulders, waving past me, felt the sweat sting my eyes, wind hitting me in the face. I felt tired, and that surprised me.
Sorry I haven’t told you everything.
Because once, much later, I ran back to the dyke. The drummer didn’t leave my head. At night the drum echoed in my mind. I couldn’t sleep, there was a thought stuck in my head, clouding everything else—I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were still there, the drummer, whether you were right, whether they had a choice.
I thought about that cursed drum, could hear it ringing in my head, remembered its sound, stuck in my mind like an audible fata morgana. There was a banging in the back of my head, a shocking migraine, and I thought in a flash: the drummer is in me—but it was merely my heartbeat and the sound of my feet banging against the world. Then the dyke towered over me as if the end of the earth lay behind it. My running suddenly fell out of its rhythm, and my feet stumbled.
And I stood still. Surprised.
I looked towards the dyke.
And I thought: what if they’re not there?
And I turned around. Forced my legs back in motion, and I ran back, to you.
Only once you asked me whether I really didn’t want to go out. I remember it. You must have forgotten. That’s OK.
I only smiled. Because I didn’t know the answer either. I thought: no. But I didn’t say it out loud.
Sometimes I try it, when you are not here. Going out. I play pretend. I comb my hair. Wash my face, brush my teeth. I put on my winter coat—I still have it. I unlock the door. And I push my feet into my shoes, force my flesh into the unforgiving leather, tie the shoelaces until I can’t tie them any tighter. Oftentimes I forget I don’t feel anything. Then I keep tieing my shoes until I realize they’ll never be tight enough. The skin above my ankles turns red and swells. The tips of my fingers feel the heat under my skin when I touch it.
I hoist myself up with one hand on the door handle and the other on the coat rack. From a towering perspective I look down at my own body. It pretends to stand up. It almost looks real. I feel the muscles in my arms tense, my hands are shaking. My gaze glances past my reflection’s. Quickly I look down again.
One moment I consider it. An excruciatingly slow second slips by.
Then I let myself fall, back down on the floor. In front of the front door I finally breathe out. I throw my coat in a corner, untie my shoes. The skin on my ankles is a deep purple. Then it turns white again.
I know you don’t like it. I see the way you look at my shoes in the hallway. I know you are sad, somewhere inside. As if you know something I haven’t told you.
Sorry I haven’t told you.
Because that one time it was different. In the first instance I didn’t realize it. But the light in the room changed. Suddenly drops of dust seem to float in the air. Tangible. Physical, almost. My breath dripped into my chest, viscous. Somewhere in the distance there was a sound I couldn’t pin down. Sudden dusk.
And then the pain came, suddenly. A burning plate under the soles of my feet. In shock I looked down at my legs, but they just laid there like always. Yet my feet seemed to burst out of their skin, bursting from pure, raw pain and deep fear for what was happening. My eyes immediately watered. I must have let out a moan. An old reflex flashed through my nerves like an old memory. Dead ends. My legs were as motionless as usual. When my fingers touched my feet, I felt an ice cold shiver on my back. Flowing lava seemed to pour out of my fingers with every touch.
Abruptly, as if someone flipped a switch, everything turned back to normal. The pain was gone. The air was air. The room bathed in a bleak sunlight.
But I gasped for air, shaking over my entire body. My legs didn’t shake.
From behind the glass I look at you, that night, and I don’t know what to do. There’s a dense anxiety in my chest. Tangled confusion. Everything is changing, nothing has changed. A thought crosses my mind: maybe the door won’t open.
But the door slams open. A flood of movement and cold drifts towards me.
Hi, I say.
You say: I’m back.
I bury my face in your coat.
I see the two of us, sitting, on the floor. I don’t know why, but I look at you from a distance, and at myself. And I notice there is someone else in that embrace. A dead someone, underneath me. A corpse that is attached to me, a lifelong weight that I carry with me forever. Which will never leave me and will never be mine.
I see it lying there, under us. I have kept it a secret for a long time, that someone else exists too, someone with muscles and nerves, bones and blood. I have denied it until I forgot it was mine, until I forgot it was me. All my life I pretend I am half of me.
My eyes water. They disappear silently into your coat. I smell the scent of dust, sweat and a hint of your perfume. You smell like usual. Nothing has changed.
I want to say all kinds of things, but nothing comes out.
I look past us, at the room. And then I see water flowing under the door. The windows of the room turn a muddy blue. I hear sounds from outside roaring, surging, growing louder and turning into whispers again, seem to suddenly come from all sides. The wooden floor colors dark, the cloudy carpet turns a deep blue sky again, the ocean flows into the legs of my trousers, drips down the ceiling, seeps underneath the door into the house.
I see how the room slowly gets drenched into the sea, how the water drifts my legs away from the wood. And suddenly I float on the surface, away from your arms, and I feel sad and happy, and the stream carries me away, gently.
© Merle Findhammer.