Paths More Travelled
Her first great exploration was her own body. She had craving one day deep inside herself that she found only her hand could quash. Once she had started she couldn’t stop. She explored herself regularly in the outhouse buildings behind her parents ex farmhouse in southern France. During the endless summer holidays lying amongst the old piles of wood with the exquisite sun beaming down on her face, through the shattered weather beaten roof, mirroring the hot exquisite feeling she provoked in her own body. It was just the spiders, cobwebs and the silence.
She explored her body the minute she opened her eyes, surrounded by childhood fads she had outgrown - she was a woman now. She explored herself on freezing cold nights with the moon peeking through the nets forsaking dreams for sensations. She was like a foreign tourist in her own body exploring her landscape carefully and gingerly at first, then greedily and with confidence because now she knew the way. Her body then became like a favourite country that she kept returning to. Always excited to go there, the familiarity was comforting. Her hands were the compass and navigator.
It wasn’t planned when she strayed from her own island. She and her friends were drunk and in a bar that they weren’t old enough to be in. They got talking to some men.
She was fifteen and he was much older. He didn’t kiss her and he didn’t tell her he loved her. It was her first time she didn’t cry tears of romance but a little tear of pain. He left her to pull up her own skirt, amongst the bins and wooden gates in the lane. He left her with a bit of himself inside her and a longing for more. From that moment on exploring her own island felt pointless when she had the whole world to discover.
She sailed through college, then university taking every man she could. Some with different accents and different nationalities. Some of the views were good some were bad, some were big some were small- all were experiences. Each one she met was like reading a book. She couldn’t wait for the excitement of reaching the end except when she got there the excitement lasted as long as it took to turn a page. Just like a book when you finished it there was nothing left except a longing for more. The reading wasn’t entirely pointless though she took bits of information and learning from each then recycled and dispensed the knowledge at her will.
Faking orgasms was never a problem but love: that was a completely different matter. Faking love was hard and all the while she had restless feet. Some of the men she had met wanted to stop her sailing. They wanted her to be still and stop there. She just wanted to be ships passing in the night. She never wanted to stop and talk. They tried to anchor her. Then she let someone visit her island a little too much. She had always been the one that had gotten away but there was no getting away from him. So she tried to take a holiday from her travels and stay in one place, let another person onto her island, another person and only that person alone.
All the while she kept looking out at the endless sea and sky and wondered about the world. She felt like all she did was go round in circles on their island. All they ever did were see the same things, talk about the same things, watch the same things and just eat the same fish out of the same water. She soon felt she wasn’t sharing an island she were imprisoned on one. She wanted to swim away as fast as she could but he couldn’t let her go. She tried to let them drift apart but that didn’t work. One person’s happy island wasn’t necessarily someone else’s.
She was sorry but hungry for someone else. So she left him alone in the water. She had no idea he would drown himself. Sunken by rejection, heartbreak and spite. She felt like she never wanted to see him again and now she never would. Nobody would. He might not ever laugh again but he had definitely had the last laugh. Unlike most men he left her with something she would never forget - an unhappy accident. Whenever she swam with someone she made sure there were life jackets and rubber armbands but with him she must have gotten careless. Maybe the life jackets weren’t fastened right maybe one was torn maybe she let her guard down one night stuck on that desolate island just him and her.
This time there was something different inside her, growing by the day every day, for nine months. Now she was marooned again on her own private island all alone. Her feelings were conflicted. Now her needs and thoughts were for someone else. She worried also. Trying to travel with baggage was tricky. She would be anchored again only this time for the rest of her life. After much pondering she decided to give her baggage away. If you love something set it free but she set it free before she loved it. In case she loved it. She wasn’t the steadiest of ships. She knew there would always be the option to pull up the anchor and sail away regardless of who was on board. It was for the best.
She would always remember the pain and the smell of the hospital, the close foggy day. But she’d never remember it. It had been a him. She didn’t want to see it. She was scared her emotions might betray her. She was scared one look at him would trick her into thinking she could handle the responsibility. She gave her baggage away to someone who didn’t have baggage. Who couldn’t have baggage of their own. Someone who would take care of her baggage and love it unconditionally.
After that she told herself she wouldn’t travel so much. Then her body healed as quickly as her appetite. She threw herself into work and more men. Her 30’s and 40’s flew by. She climbed up her career ladder like she climbed onto men - quick and fast. She had everything she had ever wanted, not necessarily what everybody else wanted, but what she had wanted. She’d forgotten some of the countries she'd been to until she bumped into them again and got reminded. She gave a hasty apology and felt a rush of embarrassment.
Age! Slows! Everything! Her body had always felt like a vessel. First she was a speedboat, then a hovercraft, at her prime she felt like a cruise ship then a canoe going out occasionally on the water when she could. Then finally like a slow moving canal boat where she watched life pass her bye. Her travels got less frequent. She was determined to keep on sailing but the ship was getting old and the passengers were less eager and frequent. When she reached sixty her body had an apocalypse. The apocalypse every woman goes through. This time she was mooring up for good.
She tried different things different medications. It got better than it was but it wasn’t the same. An adventurous spirit was only as good as the legs that carried it, and her legs had gotten old. She got old. She reached a point where she realized there would be no more sightseeing. She didn’t have wooden carvings from Africa or bits of sand from mediterranean beaches shed walked on. She didn't have pebbles or shells she had collected from the four corners of the globe. She didn't have a lifetime of souvenir’s to surround her in her luxury apartment.
Instead she had memories and experiences. There were no children and grandchildren surrounding her deathbed but she was fine with that. Like some of the greatest travellers and explorers of all time she had travelled alone.
'Are you nervous, Ani?' Mother's soft voice comes from the doorway. For a moment I decide to pretend to be asleep but after tomorrow this will no longer be my home and I will regret not talking to her, one last time.
In my village, when woman marries, she may no longer call her mother, 'Mother'. Mother is her husband's mother and she is never allowed to visit her own blood family without him accompanying her.
'Yes,' I say. And I am. Tomorrow morning my life will change forever.
In my village, if a new wife doesn't bear children within one year of marriage, she is outcast and her husband may cancel the contract.
Mother comes and sits by me, on my mat. I lay my head in her lap. 'When I married Father, I felt the same,' she says.
And now? I want to ask her. Now how do you feel every single morning, not knowing what mood he will greet you with? Don't you still feel nervous?
In my village, violence against women is part of life. We are property. But in the market, some months ago, we heard a woman speaking. She didn't look like us, but what she said was about us. She told us that we were equal. I'd gone there to trade sugar with Mia. What we heard changed our lives. Like a light in my head, Mia told me later.
Mother rubs her hand against her face, where I know a bruise has almost faded. It's the palest yellow. She burned the food. I'd always felt her pain like my own and felt my own useless anger rise up and strike him back. But after hearing the woman in the market, I almost did it. Only Mother's warning, held in her eyes as she seemed to read my mind and my actions, stopped me. He would strike her again, and we all knew it.
Janu, the man I am going to marry, is gentle now. but they always are, in the beginning, Mia tells me. Her husband to be is called Feon. We are going to be neighbours, in our new lives.
'The night before I married your father, I almost ran away,' Mother says, not meeting my eyes. She takes my hand. 'But then I'd not have you, sweet Ani,' she says. 'It is always worth it. If I had run, I'd never have been able to come back. They would have looked for me. Nowadays they can look even further.'
Is she trying to tell me something?
In my village, love between women is forbidden. It is punishable by death. Mia and I, we are very careful.
'If I had run away, I'd have gone South. I hear there is help there, for women who need it.' Mother touches my cheeks with her loving hands. 'I will be here for you, when you are married. I will still be your mother, even though you musn't name me such.'
We hold each other, hard, each, I know, filled with words we cannot or must not say. I long to tell her and equally I know she longs to tell me her secrets, but it isn't our way. Secrets in a village are dangerous and would damage our ability to survive as a community. This is what the chief tells us.
Mother turns at the door and we hold each others gaze. She gives the slightest of nods, then leaves the room.
I think of Janu's size. His big hands. His booming voice.
In my village, when a woman is married, she must do whatever her husband tells her.
I've never been alone with Janu. But I know what he will want to do when we are. It will be nothing like the soft harmony that I share with Mia.
From a dark corner of my room, I withdraw my pack. There's not much in it; a few tools, some clothes, a little food.
In my village, women behaving strangely, hoarding food, talking too much to other women are there to be spied on. We have had to be very, very careful.
The men are in the village centre hut tonight. Before a marriage ceremony they creep together in the dark and do something, none of us women know what and we are all too afraid to try and look. If we were caught...
In my village, there are stories. Stories of ancestors who broke the rules. Like Luka, who argues with her husband in front of his family. Like Freya, who refused to bear her husband's children. Like her sister, who was unable to have any. They all come to bad ends. In my village, it is easiest to agree.
But things are changing. The woman in the market spoke of women who led. Women who hunted. Women who left their villages and travelled. before she was chased away, we heard.
Behind my village, there's a hill. It's on top of it that I've arranged to meet Mia. We've nevber been beyond it; it's forbidden.
In the darkest hour, I pull on my boots and strap on my pack. I creep from the room, into the common area, into the kitchen. I take a last glance around the lumpen darkness, filled with so many memories. The door sighs shut as I slip out.
And walk straight into someone.
A hand is clamped over my mouth, which is the only reason I don't scream.
'Hushhhhh,' whispers a voice in the blackness and my heart falls to the ground.
Mother. She has guessed.
I nod and she removes her hand. What is she going to do? Take me to the central hut now? Tell Father? Lock me in the room? All along, she's known.
'After talking to you earlier, I could see it in your eyes. I know you like I know myself. You came from me. I cannot let you do this...'
'No!' I begin, but she hasn't finished.
We stare at each other, the starlight enough for us to see each other's will.
'We talk later. Hush.' She pulls me into the shadows. 'If we are caught...' but she clamps that spoken thought down.
I can't speak. Mother? This? Then I notice the pack, strapped to her back. Hand in hand we slip behind and between huts. When we reach the safety of the edge of the wood I whisper, 'Stop.' I turn to face her. 'I have to tell you something. Mia and I...'
'You love her,' Mother says. 'I can see it. Where are we meeting her?'
In my village, women know each other. Far more than the men think we do.
When we heard the woman in the market talking, Mia and I felt something light up within us. A spark, like the ones that leap form the men's flints. We spoke of it often. Our love kept that spark shining. Now, with Mother next to me, fleeing silent in the darkness, I feel the spark grow into a flame, which burns hot inside me. Suddenly my fear is gone.
We climb the hill, helping each other over rocks; balancing each other.
Eventually, we reach the place I've arranged to meet Mia. She's not there. Mother and I sink down, our breath coming ragged.
'She'll be here,' I say but what are are both thinking is this: She's been caught. And this is the end.
We wait and we wait. We don't speak.
As dawn's slender fingers reach up over the edge of our world the pain in me has solidified into a rock of anger and fear. I want to go and fight them all, grab her back - for she's been caught, I am sure of it.
Then Mother notices something in the dim light, half-sticking up out of the earth. It's a piece of leather. She pulls at it and it breaks free of the stony ground.
We stare at what lies in her hand. It's a necklace I made Mia the first time we discovered our love. I feel the rock of anger dissolve back into pain. My tears fall between Mother and me. She knows, without me telling her. She pulls me close.
'Ani,' she croons, and rocks me back and forth.
'We must go,' she says. 'By now, they are close to discovering us. It's too late to go back.'
'I don't want to go back,' says my anger.
Mother stands and pulls me to my feet. 'For now, we must move. Lock those feelings away. Time for them later. Come, let's go.'
We begin to walk, faster and faster as we realise the danger we're in. The sun is coming up and we are exposed. In my village, women do as they're told. As far as I know, we are the first to run.
I hear the alarm-horn first, with my younger hearing, with ears that haven't been kicked and punched.
'They're coming,' I say, hearing the panic in my own voice.
And my mother, the stone in her voice striking down my panic, says, 'So we walk faster. And we find somewhere to hide until darkness falls. And in the night, we find a path, and we keep walking.'
“When you find your path, you must not be afraid. You need to have sufficient courage to make mistakes. Disappointment, defeat, and despair are the tools God uses to show us the way.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida
Should you ever read this,
This sub 'A' Level attempt at creative writing
Meet me at the Old Quarry
Where we shall once again
Walk the path we have so often travelled
Down the rutted lane to the Enchanted Gardens
Where may be found, on occasion
The finest cakes available to humanity
Soundtracked on red letter days
By a jolly retro jazz band
An enchanted cabaret of woodland sprites
Once again let me lead you
Down the wooded slope to the canal
(But don’t forget your practical shoes!)
Cross the bridges over the gullies
Pause to rest awhile on my "contemplative bench"
The cathedral-like arching of branches overhead
Imbuing the setting with a quiet numinosity
Listen beyond the whispering leaves
The chug of passing boats
and walkers summoning their dogs
And you may hear an answer
To soothe your troubled mind
Each walk along this path brings new resonances
Overlaying the old with current truths
He Loves Me ... He Loves Me Not
Today I sit here alone
Having set you free to pursue your knightly quest
Heart a little heavy
Yet, paradoxically, lightened by the hope that
I have Done The Right Thing”
So as I sit and reflect I wait for the voice
Which comes, as ever, in its own time
"Whatever lies ahead, be thankful
for the joy you have known"
On another day
Another lifetime perhaps
We shall sit here together again
And write the next chapter ...
Continue to the grand amphitheatre
Of the Old Quarry
Circle the seven rings of the stone labyrinth
In search of deeper meaning
Did we ever find enlightenment?
Perhaps not ...
But it was fun trying