I’m a globe with legs. This ancient fit-to-burst rucsac on my back, and an ancient fit-to-burst belly on the front. Like an idiot I dressed in blue and green as well. I see people looking at me “oh there goes the earth off on her orbit ‘round the estate”.
They don’t’ think that do they though? “There’s that slag again,” they think. “Probably trying to find someone new to leech off.” Then they throw a cola can after me. I’m surprised the litter doesn’t get pulled into my orbit I’m that bloody huge. One silver foil moon and a billion pieces of rusty crap circling and pulling at my tides.
I’m leaving the estate. I thought maybe there would be something for me there, in amongst the well-fed kids and window boxes. I thought perhaps they’d see me, swollen and over-burdened with all this on my back that weighs so heavy but feels so little. “It’s all I got left,” I said. And maybe it looks like a lot to someone who has never had to pack up their history in a hurry and run. I thought they’d see my skinny legs and my bare feet and at least let me sit and eat while I told the story. I thought the sores and burns and stale breath would be enough to say: “I’m in trouble. Help me”. But all it did was disgust people. No-one can look at my skin without screwing up their faces and retching. No-one gets close enough to hear me speak because I smell so bad. Years of sweat and rot.
I’m not saying there hasn’t been kindness. There’s been a lot of it from people who look at my belly and never my face. Only last week when I was curled up in a bus shelter, a woman put a bottle of water and a sandwich in my hand then ran away without a word.
Ten years ago a man let me sleep in his bed two nights and never touched me. On the third night he told me his girlfriend was coming back from a work trip, his landlord didn’t really allow overnight stays anyway, he was really sorry. He really hoped it meant something to me, how I slept in his bed and he never once took advantage, he was one of the good ones, he said.
A hundred years ago – no, closer to 200 now – I was sure my time had come. It’s the closest I’ve been to the end in a long time. My face was stone-grey, covered in thick dust that wouldn’t have washed off even if the rivers hadn’t been thick with dirt and cholera. I could feel my lungs sticking together, holding tight onto each breath in desperation. It was the first time I really went on the run, rather than wandering place to place as the mood took me. I was heading out of London, out of Berlin, out of New York. I was on my way into the mountains in search of fresh air and drinking water. But I left it too late. I clung on, digging myself deep into the cracks between the flagstones and bricks. Hiding out on the banks of canals and living in piles of fresh horse shit. By the time I admitted it was time to get out I was shrunken and weak. My belly a grave mound in a country churchyard.
I collapsed outside a red brick townhouse with roses in the garden and ivy climbing the walls. A pale young man and a red-haired woman found me and dragged me in by the armpits. They took my dignity, but gave me water, whisky and laudanum to made my eyes wide and bright. They cleaned the dirt from my face. They propped me up against a cherry tree in the garden with blossom falling in my lap. I began to breathe smoothly again. My belly grew a little. They didn’t ask many questions because they enjoyed mysteries.
He painted me lying on the ground as I was when we first met, but on a carpet of wild grass and buttercups rather than on damp cobblestones. My skin in his painting was just a shade lighter than cherry blossom, my ankles slender. He asked me not to move so much. She painted me standing, full-bellied, and gazing up at the stars. Even though she painted during the day. Even though at night, there were no stars. The London sky was grey and sticky, reflecting back only the light from streetlamps.
I bedded them both. Her in the evening, as sun set over the garden and she admired her flame-haired reflection in my eyes. Him in the morning, as inspiration before he began work, his stale, pre-breakfast breath making its way into my nostrils. Again, he asked me not to move so much.
When they say I’m a slut, on their own terms, they are right. I’ve been with many people, in a thousand places and a thousand times. Each one of them adds their piece to what’s inside of me. Some shrink it. Some grow it. Some were happy to simply pass through. Some of them wanted me to stay. Some of them told me that they loved me and that was why I must stay; I must stay still and wait for the baby to be born; exertion is bad, for a woman in my condition. They said they would move for me; they would go out and kill things: slaughter rabbits and pull up plants; build fields and bring it all back to me as a sacrifice.
I do remember the old ones, before the reset. I remember the shake of the ground and the ripples in the water when they were near. I remember the lowing and roaring and the ripping of flesh. More than anything I remember the fire that ripped through me, melting and then remaking. I was more fluid then and young flesh repairs easily. I’ve been torn apart and remade a hundred times.
My first baby lived for millions of years and I only just remember her, she was very unlike my next child. She was killed by a fallen rock – it flattened me too, but I survived. The next thing I knew I was swinging through a high canopy of trees. My arms were long and strong. My skin was tough and my hair was thick and warm. The leaves were lush and tasty, the water was clear, the air was wet but fresh. My belly grew as quick as a pumpkin, getting bigger each time I mated. I became too heavy to swing through the trees, so like a ripe fruit I thudded down to earth. I rolled down a hill into a square field, coming to a halt next to a fire pit, and there I gave birth to my next baby. She was clever, proud, vain and delicate. And at war with herself. Always at war.
I lay down exhausted for a thousand years. I watched my daughter build around me, occasionally passing by to pick my brains: to ask for directions to the water and how to change the direction of its flow, to ask for more food, or to steal a fingernail or tuft of hair for a spell. Eventually I was bald and cold and although the fire had grown it couldn’t warm me. I rolled downhill again and found a man to spend the night with. I learned his language, ate a meal, and then went on my way. My next child was planted.
This new baby has grown quickly – over just a few millennia, although sometimes it’s been touch and go. There were times when she shrank away to almost nothing. Sometimes I feel her squirm and cramp inside me. Sometimes I think she might starve or choke. But she’s a strong one.
Out of the housing estate I run. My stomach splits down the middle, my scalp cracks down the centre like a nut, the fissure lets the sun in so that the light rattles around my skull and shines out of my eyes. Moving into the millionaires’ suburbs, I dodge giant cars, I head into farmland, then mountains, then more farmland, more suburbs, another housing estate, a city centre, quiet and still, abandoned factories, a green canal, graffiti of slang words thirty years out of date. An old train track. An unmanned station.
I find a hole in the wall of what was once a control room – abandoned now. I close in on myself. My legs and arms fold inward. My neck draws into my torso, and then my head, so I make a perfect round ball. Then I compress some more. I become so dense that there is nothing at all between my cells. I am so tiny and so heavy. I lift and roll into a gap in the wall, a place between two bricks where a little cement fell out. I steady my breathing and get ready to give birth again.
I am rich earth; the trees tower above. I can feel the soil around my body, as if I am growing roots. I can feel parts of me stretch down, reaching for nourishment, settling in, finding my grounding. I will grow. I can feel the moisture penetrate me, and then softly lift around me. There is a stillness to this state, but also an energy, a vibration that fills me. It is dark, but I feel fed. This is where I need to be.
I am an unfurling tendril.
The sky. I reach for it in the lifting mist of morning. I am slow, stiff, as I raise my arms. How did I become this tree? Was it last night, last week? Who did this to me? How did I get here?
My memory is blank. New beginnings. Rooted. Connected. That is all I need to know. What I need to know is here, now, the shape of the earth, the texture of the soil.
A light flickers and I look up at plastic. I am on the radiation machine, gazing at fluorescent ceiling panels. I am carefully positioned by technicians. I am naked from the waist up. My breasts open to the air. My right arm is lifted up and laid back, alongside my head, palm turned out, just so. Multiple hands reach down to shape me. My bare torso is nudged to the left, then twisted slightly right, and pulled up, until the precise position is found. The hands disappear to the protection of their windowed room. I catch vague glimpses of silent shapes through the glass. I am alone in statue stillness. A brief return. A last hand gently reaches down and lifts my back up lightly. Now it’s okay. A parting touch and gentle murmur. A long beep announces the rays. They are an invisible burn that erodes from within. I feel nothing.
I see myself as from above. I am a Gumby doll. I am bent in all directions. Arms akimbo. A disjointed bare-chested bendy doll spread upon the table. They shape me, position my arms, step away. I am clay. A few last adjustments. I am a radiation sculpture. I am a plastic doll. A plaything. A toy. An object to be played with.
I arrive early for these appointments, as the night is only just surrendering to the first light of day. Winter mornings. Cold air. January. 20 minute drives. I savor the road. I am exhilarated. Rock music blaring. Racing freely through the dark curves. Triumphant. The last traces of chemo are fading. Every day I drive for my 15-minute ray appointments. My voice rises over the music, filling the car’s space. I feel the control over the steering wheel under my hands, the power of my foot on the accelerator. I am free to drive alone. My cap is tugged firmly over my bald head, as I journey down roads, savoring my energy. The chemo is behind me. I sally forth into my uncertain future. Street lights beckon brightly. The cold air blows through a cracked car window. I drive alongside the sunrise and emerge from the car, breathing in deep gulps of air.
The cancer building is modern, brightly lit, spacious and filled with light. There is a small cafeteria. It is an avant-garde cancer center. Weekly jazz concerts are staged. Beauty consultation sessions are organized for women in chemo. The wig man is amazing. He performs kind makeover sessions and sets up skillful management of hair loss while dispensing bursts of wisdom. The chemo rooms are state of the art, and the atmosphere is welcoming, filled with a softness. The doctor’s offices are organized by color codes. My surgeon is in the yellow section. My oncologist, in the blue. My radiologist is green. I am a member here. I am lucky to be here. I am lucky to come to this lovely place. I am lucky to have such care. I am lucky.
I have an assigned radiation machine. Radiation machines are very personal. Each one is calibrated, and once a machine becomes yours, you cannot change. Two small black marks are tattooed strategically on my chest to guide the rays that will penetrate below skin and finish killing the last of the rebel cells. This is the last stage of war. The troops have been largely decimated, but those in hiding must be drawn out and extinguished. This tattoo will remain, a silent, steady reminder of this war. I often expect people to notice, ask me why I have a pen mark on my chest. A pen mark framed by round loops of necklaces. I have been drawn upon. I am a work of art. I had always wanted a tattoo.
I have a magazine called Rose Magazine. Rose is French for pink. Pink is the color of breast cancer. Pink is the color of my breasts. In this magazine issue there is a long article about tattoos. A series of photos portray women in half naked poses, their chests covered with winding branches of leaves and roses, extravagant chests, where breasts have been removed, re-arranged, adjusted, all overrun by creeping plant life. I stare curiously at this inky vegetation stretching across bodies in metamorphosis, artful echoes of regeneration. A poignant reminder of the cancer body’s instinctive, steady reaching for the vigor of life. Recreation, transformation, metamorphosis.
From my position on the table, I study the plastic covers of the fluorescent lights. Synthetic plants are etched into the pink and purple light encasements. Mood is important. These are carefully placed for cancer patients to see. A simulation of the sky. I stare at them, every day, the images engraving themselves into my mind. Radiation every day. Five weeks. I look up from the table where I am strategically perched to receive the rays. I lift up again and again to this curious canopy of pink leafy branches scattered randomly across ceiling squares, a spray of truncated, cheerful replica of nature infused with rosy hues, certainly intended to calm. The frames cut the forest canopy into incomplete pieces, like a Japanese print. Branches have been cut, and the plants continue invisibly beyond the frame for the mind to complete. Music pipes into the room, adding a soothing note to these brief instants of radiation ray blasting. I lay back, happy to play this game. My glee is my drug. I am an addict. This is easy, I think, my right arm stretched above my head, and my body lying still. Piece of cake. Zap me.
I am breasts on a platter. I think about Saint Agatha, the Italian saint of breast cancer patients. Her breasts were cut off by pincers, end-nippers, end-cutters, instruments of torture. She had refused to marry the governor Quintien and the punishment was breast reduction. Iconography shows pinchers, bleeding breasts, and images of Saint Agatha carrying her dismembered breasts on a tray. Like Bernardino Luini’s Saint Agatha (1510-1515). The French have named a cheese after her, Le Tétoun de Sainte Agathe, goat cheese topped off by a peppercorn. And the Italians sell a pastry called Minne di Sant’Agata, Breasts of St. Agatha, topped by a bright red cherry. Her breasts travel through time, continuing to sprout up on tables and perch proactively in the vitrines of fromageries or pannetteria, breasts that cannot be extinguished. Saint Agatha also protects against Lava. Her spirit saved the inhabitants of Palermo from a lava flow when Mount Etna erupted. The people took her veil, the pall from her tomb and used it to stop the river of fire.
My cancer breast has taken on pinker tones, like a light sunburn. My radiation therapist says I am tolerating the treatment well. There is just one rebellious ray that seems to have missed the mark. It has burned straight through me. A small patch of burned skin has emerged on my back. It itches. The lava has not been fully contained. The fire burns silently through.
I arrive at this cancer center every day, print my waiting number at the machine, check in at the office, get my patient labels and special ID card for my rays. I carry my blue folder of prescriptions, x-rays, test results. It is too heavy and cumbersome now to carry alone. I have to put it in a large canvas bag that I sling casually over my shoulder. As we wait at reception, in various states of baldness, fatigue, worry, triumph, we look at each other, wondering curiously what sort of havoc cells are wreaking in the others. I then go to my radiation section. There I wait. Then I enter a small changing room through a door where I remove my shirt and bra. There are special hooks on the wall for my belongings. No jewelry. No creams. I stroll casually half-naked into the radiation room and perform my daily greeting to the technicians. They help me climb onto the table. The music plays. The trees on the ceiling glow with their familiar fiery pinkness. I lie back, settle into my usual position, arm raised, head still, body silent, eyes turned up to the bright branches, the leaves flushed with wavering light. Monday. Tuesday, Wednesday. Thursday. Then a break. Machine maintenance. Then Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Every day. Every day. Every day. Five weeks.
There are also the breasts of the Amazons. Amazons! Yes. Wild women warriors. An etymological myth has it that Amazon means literally “without breast,” and insists that the breasts of the Amazons were burned, or even cut off. My breast was being burned. And it would soon be cut off. I am an Amazon!
Breasts have come to infiltrated my imagination. I have grown obsessed. I collect breasts in an internal scrapbook. Evocative stories, images. My favorite is of a goddess with breast regeneration powers. If her breast is cut off, another grows grow back in its place. I like this idea immensely. Spontaneous breast regrowth. That would solve so many problems for breast cancer, I think. My pink breast will be cut off. I imagine a new one already quivering from within, ready to sprout again, like the breasts of a young woman, hovering just below the surface. It can grow back, I think, spontaneous rebirth, a second adolescence. I imagine it emerging slowly, tentatively from the skin’s encasing, like the push of green sprouts through dry, parched soil, or like one of those fleshy vegetable babies gestated by plants in fairy tales. It will swell, develop, fill itself out. I can already feel the process quickening within, preparing to respond in an instant to the excising pinchers.
The leafy Rose Magazine chest tattoos return. I feel the soil build around my body. The moisture of the earth. The life of the forest. I watch curiously as fresh green tendrils begin to sprout from my chest, across my shoulders and back. I can feel the eager leaves unfurling, as they reach for the light. They wind slowly around me, covering my breasts, slowly, deliberately, invading my body, stretching past the machines, as they move beyond the steady pink light of the ceiling vegetation. The leaves etch themselves into my skin in that uncanny slowness of vegetal growth that is only visible when filmed and viewed in acceleration. I feel a delicate unfolding take hold of my body, and I rise into the pink forest. I am a tree.
When the fire blight came last season, the sickness withered the leaf buds on the fruit trees in the orchard. It shrivelled them before they’d even unfurled, before they could expose their lamina to the sunshine to pull nutrition up from the roots through the trunk and along the branches. Tiny ghost blossoms fell, the fruit not even a glint in their mother-trees’ eyes.
In mid-winter the cantonal arborist arrived along the track from the village on his horse. Magda watched him from her kitchen window. She was dyeing yarn with the skins of blueberries, cherries, brambles and plums. Her arms were buried in a sink full of violet liquid, moving the skeins back and forth to urge the colour through the loops.
She stopped swishing the yarn and ducked to the side of the window, hoping the arborist wouldn’t notice her. As she dried her stained hands on her apron, he passed the chalet and rode on towards the farm. Magda breathed a sigh of relief. But by the time she had coaxed the creases out of the linen swatches on the drying line in the cellar, he was rapping on her door.
She’d recognised the signs the previous summer, but hoped to protect her quince tree growing against the southwest corner of the chalet. She’d nipped off a number of furled brown leaves and a few blackened buds petrified on their stalks before they could open their first petals. She scraped the blight from the bark in several places and bathed the rusted bruises with a mixture of spinach and potato water. Papa had taught her how to do this, should the occasion ever arise, when Magda was barely as tall as the newly-planted sapling. He told her the blight might come next year, or it might come in a decade, but she must do her best to stop the dreaded Feuerbrand. While apples and pears blackened on the trees on the farm, Magda nursed her quince tree. It produced an average harvest that year, but at least it bore some fruit.
She watched the arborist now, giving her tree the death sentence. She suspected he took pleasure in its fate; she had never offered him a jar of gêlee and she had twice refused the hand of his son who used to tease her at school.
While she stood with her arms crossed and the cold wind whipping the hair out of her braid, the arborist dipped his brush into a can of lime he’d carried against his saddle bag and painted an ‘x’ onto her quince tree’s lower trunk. Afterwards, he doffed his hat. As the point of his tongue moistened the stub of a Krumme between his thin lips, he told her he’d be back in spring with his apprentices and their saws. As he marched away from the chalet, a bittersweet waft of tobacco smoke choked the air on his wake. Magda flapped the stench away with her hand and turned to place her fingers on the tree, caressing each of its bare limbs.
At the end of the day, every second fruit tree on the farm bore a bright white ‘x.’ Crosses adorned the leafless sentinels, pale against their black bark. With the snow on the meadow behind them, they resembled ballistraria windows in a fortification, waiting for the arrows of fate to pass through their woody souls.
When the arborist disappeared down the track, a pile of steaming dung his only other calling card, Magda stood for a moment in front of her tree with snowflakes jewelling her hair and tears freezing on her cheeks. She remembered Papa tying the tree’s lanky branches to the trellis each season as it overtook her in height and grew past the windows of their home. The quince tree’s limbs were now crucified against the wooden walls of the chalet, awaiting their fate.
Spring came with a burst of foliage on all the plants around the chalet. Magda’s heart swelled to see silver leaf buds opening on the quince tree. She examined each new furl as it appeared. At the first sign of a wrinkled burn, she nipped it with her fingers. If she found rusty cankers on the bark, she scraped them away and poured her recipe of boiled spinach water onto the wound.
The flower buds came in May and for the most part they were healthy. She continued to nurse her tree. With a little help from a soft brush, the white ‘x’ on its trunk soon peeled and faded. And the ribbed, grass-like leaves of Magda’s irises sprouted tall from the rhizomes she had planted around the base of the trunk at the end of the winter.
The arborist came back in June with a group of men, each holding a sharp-toothed saw. Magda watched him from the kitchen window, a crooked cigar still hanging from his mean mouth. He designated each of his helpers to different areas of the farm. Addressing a young man she’d not seen before, the arborist pointed directly at the chalet. She put her hand to her chest, as though this person had been instructed to carve out her heart.
The young man marched towards the chalet and Magda rushed out into the spring sunshine. She knelt on a curb-stone in front of her tree and pretended to pull weeds from around the iris blooms at its base. Their iridescent blue heads had grown almost to the window ledge. The blooms nodded with their floppy petal ears and mocking tongues in the breeze.
As the man approached, Magda stood and turned to him, placing herself in front of her tree, arms crossed, bracing for a fight. But he merely glanced at her, perhaps a little surprised by her presence, and walked right past. Magda’s arms fell to her side, her mouth open, heat rising to her cheeks as he continued on to an apple tree in the lower field. He circled the tree once while removing his jacket, and put his hand to his chin. He pushed up his sleeves and positioned his saw at the height of his knees on the camber of the slope. She noted the strength of his thigh through his leather trousers and the power of his bicep. Before his blade took the first bite, he looked back at Magda with his iris-blue eyes and awarded her a smile. The heat that had graced Magda’s cheek before, now sent fire to her belly.
Once the arborist’s men had felled the sick trees, the branches were cut into sections and stacked over the stumps. They set fire to each pile to avoid the spread of the blight to the remaining healthy trees in the orchard. Magda brought a chair out into the sun to work on some embroidery while surreptitiously watching the young man work. When he’d finished, the arborist called the group together to be on their way. The young man walked towards Magda and stopped in front of her, tipping his head with a smile.
‘We’ll return in autumn for another control,’ he said, his deep, melodious voice matching his good looks. ‘Thomas Nussbaum.’ He held out his hand.
‘Magda Meier,’ she replied, her palm clasped to his. ‘I look forward to it.’ She held his stare and his hand for longer than was perhaps appropriate.
Thomas Nussbaum’s eyes twinkled as he turned to leave.
Magda’s loom in the chalet faced south to take advantage of the best light for her weaving. It was a harsh summer, an alpine drought. While the cattle were culled on the surrounding farms for the lack of grass, Magda pulled water ever deeper from her well every day to keep the quince tree watered. The healthy green foliage shaded the window, keeping the heat out and preventing the sunlight from fading the threads on her work. She wove cloth for fine cloaks and jerkins for the villagers, making a living from her sewing through the summer months until her fruit and honey would make her prosperous for the darker seasons.
The quinces swelled on the branches framing the window, turning from green to yellow. Their furry folds filled and stretched with flesh until they resembled smooth purses of gold. The leaves fluttered and sighed in the summer breeze, as though content with Magda’s nurturing.
In the autumn, Magda tested the fruit daily with a gentle twist. When the quinces came away easily from their stalks, she collected them in a basket to store in the pantry. The chalet filled with a heady aroma somewhere between the sharpness of apples and the softness of pears but not quite either.
When the last quince had been harvested, she washed any remaining fluff from each fruit in the kitchen sink and cut them into chunks. The pieces went into the pot on the stove, flesh, skin, seeds and all. She added water to cover the fruit and boiled it until the flesh softened. The sweet-sour smell told of a fine harvest, the shortening of days, and a promise of the warming home fires of the winter ahead.
When the fruit cooled, Magda mashed it before ladling it into a finely-woven linen bag hanging over a clean pot. The blushing liquid drained in a viscous line. The next day she emptied the bag and set aside the mash which she would later mix with the last of the season’s honey to make Quittetörtlii for the Chilbi – the autumn fair.
She added three quarters of the weight of sugar to the quince nectar and heated it to a rolling boil, keeping her eye on the rising contents of the pot. When the jelly creased on the back of a cold spoon, she funnelled it into the clean jars warming on the rack above the stove.
When Magda had finished, dozens of jars of translucent cinnamon-orange jelly covered every surface of her kitchen, waiting for their labels. The tangy sweetness of their warm contents still lingered in the air. As the jelly cooled, the tin covers snapped as the air contracted under the lids. She sat at the kitchen table and wrote each label in her looping cursive: Magdas Quitten, as the lids ticked in a random concert around her.
Any jars that did not sell in the local stores or at the Chilbi would be exchanged for salt, sugar, cheese, eggs and perhaps the occasional chicken that might no longer be laying its daily quota at the farm. Otherwise they would be given as Christmas gifts or exchanged for services and wood for fuel. Each jar of her fine gêlée was highly anticipated in the community. That autumn, Magda’s quince tree was the only survivor in the village.
After the equinox and before the winter solstice, the setting sun bathed the meadows in a soft golden hue and shone directly into Magda’s kitchen, providing a warm glow for her tasks before she lit the tallow lamps.
She was stacking jars of quince jelly into boxes for the grocer to collect the following day when the kitchen went momentarily dark before the sun burst in again. Someone had passed by her window. In anticipation of the visit, Magda checked herself in the mirror in the hallway. She opened the door the moment his hand parted from the knocker.
Thomas Nussbaum stood in the porch, one arm hugging a package to his chest.
‘You came back to examine my tree?’ asked Magda.
He waved his free hand in dismissal.
‘It can wait. I have a proposal,’ he said, before Magda’s heartbeat had a chance to calm. ‘I came to see if I could make a trade. May I come in?’
Magda pressed her lips together and opened the door to her modest home. He eased his boots off with his toes, pushed them against the wall in the hallway with his foot and walked into the pine-planked floor of the kitchen in his socked feet. Magda noted a patch of darning above his left big toe and wondered who had done this for him.
‘My mother made a batch of Bauernbrot this morning. I was hoping we could negotiate a marriage.’
Magda drew in her breath, and laughed not unkindly at his choice of words that had raised her hopes for the second time that day.
‘A little presumptuous, perhaps?’ she said. ‘Now I remember where I’ve seen you before. Your mother runs the Nussbaum bakery. When I’m too lazy to make my own bread, I sometimes trade my wares.’
Magda stood to the side and pointed towards her jars of quince jelly, filling the kitchen with their pure orange light absorbed from the late afternoon sun.
‘Please, sit. Welcome to my kitchen.’
He sat at the table, placed the package in the middle and untied the paper. Inside was a handsome Bauernbrot, its rounded crust decorated with a criss-cross pattern and sprinkled with a dusting of flour. Another small package contained a clay pot filled with butter the colour of globeflowers.
‘I’m sure you will agree that we could pool our resources. We have the perfect combination right before us,’ said Thomas Nussbaum.
Magda smiled and reached for a jar that had yet to receive its label. She popped off the lid and held it to his face. He closed his eyes briefly as he sniffed the jelly, before casting his eyes over the dozens of jars about the kitchen. His gaze fell on the windowsill where a row of glass jars displayed upside-down images of the orchard beyond.
‘The jelly is the clearest I have ever seen. That burnished gold is a treasure. I cannot wait to taste it,’ he said.
‘Papa always told me it was because of the fine weave of my linen gêlée bags,’ said Magda.
The evening sun through the window flashed in Thomas Nussbaum’s blue eyes as he turned to look at the inner wall of the kitchen.
‘Look how the sunbeams cast their light through those jars.’
Magda followed his gaze and gasped. A dozen golden crosses shimmered against the wall, a row of shining ‘x’s. She took a breadboard to the table and wordlessly cut into the loaf, dipped a knife into the butter and spread a thick layer, then spooned a blob of jelly on top. She offered it to Thomas Nussbaum and he took it from her, their hands touching briefly over the table. He closed his eyes as he chewed.
‘I believe I shall not even need to cast a look at your tree, Fraulein, if its fruit continues to produce this ambrosia.’
‘I feel I’m being trapped in a bribe, Herr Nussbaum. Is this an offer I cannot refuse?’ she asked, preparing a slice of bread and quince jelly for herself.
Yes, she thought, this will make the perfect marriage.
I know it’s tough. I see you peering through the school railings―RAILINGS―, I see you alone, the other children in the street, backpacks and mittens and names on stickers, parents waving. I see you left behind. You wave to your friends―FRIEND―, and the coach arrives―yes WHEELS! You jump so your trainers flash―LIGHT―, but you’re not getting on the coach, my darling. You’re not getting on. NOT.
Your story won’t always be like this. You’ll go on the coach with the big wheels. You’ll go with your friends. You’ll sing the songs that children sing on coaches and talk about what children talk about on coaches.
But now, the coach drives off―BYE BYE― and if you cried it would be easier to watch, but you’re a brave boy, a good boy―GOOD BOY. You take the hand of the teacher and go sit with the flashcards lady who comes once a year because the government doesn’t have enough money, well it does, but it doesn’t want to spend it on children like you and this is just mummy talking to herself now and you don’t need to know the word government just yet. You go with the lady who couldn’t or wouldn’t change her schedule, not even if it meant you missing your very first school trip. And you don’t need to know that word yet either.
We’ll go on coaches, trains, hot air balloons. You love diggers? We’ll find diggers a five-year-old boy can ride.
But first you need to learn to speak, to curl the back of your tongue into the roof of your mouth, to push the air from your small lungs and breathe your ideas into the world.
And you will speak. You will. And hell, I don’t even care if the first word is coach.
We moved fast, always in daytime. We moved quiet, following rusting rail tracks and rushing rivers. We moved light, carrying only what we needed to survive: water, tinned food, medications. Weapons. A laminated map, softened with use, the railway snaking down towards a large red X. The coast and a way off this rotting island.
We switched the packs around, taking turns with lighter ones and the most precious one of all. A ridiculous space-pod carrier made for cats. Clearly designed by someone who didn’t know cats. Found in a trashed boutique pet store, infinitely better than the basket and bungee setup we’d started out with. To carry Eggatha. Our hen.
We’d been scrumping scrawny pears from a smallholding, the tree overhanging a filthy pen. We pushed inside, wood and mesh squealing, found decomposed chickens scattered through weedless dirt, their food and water containers algae-green, crawling with bugs. We were sadly familiar with death by then. Worse putrescent stenches too. Charlie had reached for a bushel of fruit, nudged a pale brown corpse with his shoe – it made a squeak-groan noise, raised a stubbled head.
We gave the withered hen spoons of water, holding her head upright. Josh found a container full of chicken pellets, made a mash and we spooned that too. We cleaned her up as best we could before wrapping her in a scavenged blanket. Maeve found a wicker basket, woven with cobwebs. I found bungee cords in a rusting car boot. There was no question the hen was coming with us. It wasn’t even about the possibility of eggs at that stage – she was so sickly, we doubted she’d ever lay – it was about saving a life. Ours was a group of broken adults who’d experienced the worst losses. We survived because we didn’t know what else to do. We needed something to care for. To live for. Bigger than us.
Eggatha adapted quickly to life on the move. Growing plump, a new lustre to her scrappy ginger-brown feathers. She’d sit proud in her carrier, watch rail tracks pass under her chauffer’s feet, enjoying ruffling breeze and cleansing rain. She learned to hunker into the bounce and sway when we had to run, to fight. We protected that space-pod with fierce purpose, gathered around it blood-spattered and snarling like wolves. She made us stronger fighters, stronger people. She made us want to make it.
When Eggatha first laid, we’d stared at the putty-coloured eggs in tearful surprise. Marcus scrambled them with canned ham and we all revelled in the sticky yellowness. After that we got two, sometimes three a day. Something sunshine fresh in a grey, decaying world.
We smell the allotments as we navigate round a stalled engine. A riot of unfettered flowers and weeds, mouldering produce. We unearth a few unspoiled carrots – Eggatha chatting excitably when she spots the feathery fronds. Alice sets her down among dahlias and dandelions, opens the pod door, lets her out to scratch.
He comes from a swayback shed, skinny, still strutting. Feathers a blaze of copper and gold, raven-black. A flaccid crimson comb like a waving clown hand. Eggatha pecking in the weeds is oblivious. Until he attempts to crow. At first like someone with Strep throat. Then, shaking his feathers in frustration, he stretches his scraggy neck and opens wide. His song reminds us of misty mornings, bowls of sugar-soaked cereal, glasses of cold milk. It resounds through the allotment. Eggatha looks up, makes an elongated ohhh sound and we find ourselves laughing – loud and unrestrained – which only makes the cockerel crow harder. As if somehow appalled at our reaction.
We move fast, always in daytime. Quiet and light. Carry what we need to survive. Protect what we need to live. To love. Everyone fights over the silly box with the hen inside, draws straws for the surly, peck-happy cockerel. Every day we share warm eggs, get closer to the coast and the last emergency ferries. To a safe home for our human family, and all the hens we can handle.
I have been between forms, shedding bright plumage. I thought I might have stayed a brassy seabird, grown fat on stolen chips. But I shrank, my wings turned iridescent and fragile and oh so beautiful. I drew into myself and hung in the air, darting away before I could be touched.
But those wings did not belong on our sharp Atlantic coast and the wind told me that I must cease my hovering.
I bank over the shushing sea. Flotsam pulls away, new stories written in tangles of seaweed and driftwood, then lost again in moments. I breathe it in like a dream. My reflection dances, crow-born and cackling.
There is a hard mass in my chest, underpinning the beating of my heart, curled over like a shucked oyster. My wings carry the tonal shifts of mourning, still. But they are also made for the day and I am become bold and loud in my old silence. I dive. The smallest things are treasures in the shifting light of a new sun.
I dip in the air and roll above the beach where once, when we were young, the tender sand engulfed us. I watched your eyes while ice cream rode rivulets over the tenderness at the base of my thumb. Melancholy rips my throat.
I stretch on our too-large bed, walking my pulse into fingers and toes. There is a feather on your pillow. Its tip lingers on damp driftwood shaped like a kiss. I smile and snap my beak. I do not turn toward the emptiness behind me. The days of my loneliness have been taken up in sleek black wings and clever eyes and there is a crowding in my throat. The wind beckons.
I release my jaw and caw into the wakening air.
the hungry develop down on their flesh,
laureate. they become a wizened peach,
a bad potato, all they cannot have.
the prisoners are blue as the bluest,
consul. they float. or their songs float.
they expire. something is getting away.
in my pastoral poems knives flew to life,
and now I’m a prisoner of war, comrade,
I scrape songs of salt and my child.
octavio paz says my presence is
like a flash of bread. i am a fresh-baked
batch of lightning. heat in seed in soil.
the translators will claim i said: life
is a barricade of nothingness, but
you know that is not in my nature,
my bad potato nature, rooting deep
in the alluvial soil. i put out white
shoots and i grasp and when i die
and my eyes cannot be closed, light,
it is because I said: life is the barricade
against nothing. seize it. hold it well.
Because this hometown half-mile
will never reflect the real world,
I pass my sister-in-law’s house,
my therapist’s house,
my best friend’s house
and my grandparents’ old house.
There are so many people
or ghosts I could call on,
yet my mother says, don’t go
to the creek after dark
and my father says, if you go
I will walk three steps behind you.
So he hovers in the background
and I cross the new bridge
remembering the old bridge
where the bed of bright moss
spreads on its underside
like a map of the world.
I had a big day ahead
Wearing my big hat
Walking along the big river
Under a big fat sky
I wore a big suit
To share my big ideas
At the big house
For the big people
We all wore big smiles
As I went big with them
Bigging up stuff I did
In my big bright life
The big star shone
As I bigged it back
Down the big road to town
Casting big long shadows
I had a big gold drink
At a big loud bar
Where a pair of big eyes
Bigged up my ego
The owner of my big heart
Took me to see big art
In the big church
Where the big god hides
We had big sandwiches
For a big price
And had a big time
With our biggest friends
I felt big in the world
Bigger than yesterday
Till I got some big words
That were sorry in a big way
I sent a big thank you
For the big chance
To share by big ideas
And thought of a big tomorrow
Stepping out on the big hill
Waiting for the big van
To ride into the big black
Sat alone in the big silence