Papa, I have heard that sages and seers say that we, human beings, are the universe. That we are our own true ‘Sun’ moving around ourselves. They also say that we are both ‘the visible’ and ‘the invisible.’ I must not talk of these things to anyone but you, for if word gets out they will take me away to smash me, protesting that I fail to obey their rules of ‘godlessness,’ ‘collectiveness,’ and am doing too much thinking for myself.
Anyway, I have always known that our human dreams are like eye beams, both projecting outward and inward. They shoot way beyond ‘time’ and ‘space,’ which are just toys of the mind I have grown out of. I can still stand in the rock Papa, not only on it, just as I used to, do you remember?
And, I’m so glad I cannot any longer speak. Silence is glorious and still, and people’s pity amusing to me. There are no further thoughts to speak, so I’m happy at last. Speaking is one of the most overrated human activities actually, so I stay in our shared silence willingly. I’ve taken up sighing on a large scale, and when I sigh I remind myself that I am not in anyway oppressed, and that I do not need anything outside myself like a god to make me truly and everlastingly happy.
I say like you always do, that everything as well as everyone has pores. Therefore, we can rain our dreams down into the pores of everything, and then the pores will radiate them out again. That we can become the rock and the rock becomes us. You might find this hard to believe, but your little girl has secretly written academic papers on this kind of ‘absorption’ as I call it. But none of the professors in any discipline – philosophy, psychology, semantics, semiotics – can get it, especially when I say it is my experience of actual life that leads me to think this way. They question the validity of my ‘actual life’ Papa!
I remember the day we died together in every single detail. It is neither a memory nor a dream, but a repeated reality, an ‘absorption.’ I repeat it when everything in this war seems so hopeless, and I turn away from people to grimace like you do, then smile wickedly, because it allows me some privacy to go back to the green river with you.
Remember the dream that you whispered to me as we fled that day? Our mighty nation’s leader surrounded by his favourites and me, in a pavilion in the sunlight. Musicians serenade and everyone cow-tows to him except me, a young girl-child who has not yet leaned how to flatter, how to block her own true nature with an ulterior agenda. I insist on his birthday cake being served, commanding the champagne bubbles to fill glasses like church spires, and he obeys me. The others whisper about my girl-child’s power over this supreme commander.
The cake arrives, carried by four strong men. There are adult arguments about who will cut it, the knife bandied around dangerously. Eventually everyone defers to our illustrious leader, and he begins slowly to cut a piece. Everyone applauds his pipe-smoking silhouette in chocolate, covering the entire surface of the cake, especially me.
Then his most favourite, you my beloved father, standing behind his chair, suddenly pushes the revered head into the cake, holding it down hard. The short arms flail at the sides of the buried head: the knuckles of the murderer-by-cake are like white studs. I want to eat the cake desperately, but everyone is busy and upset, so I run down the wooden steps into the garden, towards the green river.
I am the river and the river is me. Papa is me and I papa.
Our boat moves slowly despite the danger, the authorities pursuing us down both banks. Your prickly cheek is mine, your full moustaches mine. I take a single thick hair of it between my teeth: you have complete confidence I will not pull it because we are one. You smile and I feel the bulge of it against my bulge, and we look at the same rolling dark green waters moving us, and the waters watch us. This airy bliss is our death. Cheeks not separated by different-aged tissue or blood conditions, we die as one watery one.
But soon, our cheeks are torn apart by uniformed faceless arms so we can play out other scenes, and from then on we are no longer visible to each other. Our roles in the human pantomime? I am the Madonna, you Christ’s soldier, in a country where the clandestine addiction of the masses is their religious beliefs, which have been banned by law.
‘Irreligious.’ ‘Godless.’ ‘Collective.’ This is the new creed enforced universally. It wipes away the choices to depend on a deity or power greater than we are. But many of us need something else other than ourselves and our societies, to believe in – call it divinity, call it a distraction, a diversion, if you like. We consider ourselves followers not leaders, and we have sold our unique voices to the bullies and authorities, and so simply obey others and then complain about their decisions.
Most adults pretend to accept, living each second insincerely while wearing their various masks. But children and you papa are different. You would not accept, would never defer to an evil leader, a pipe-smoking god. We are stupidly substituting a mystical god for a human one, when what we need is to build a community in which we do not need strong drugs, ’opium,’ to cope with the loss of our true nature, as the leaders say we do. The pain of being lost to ourselves is unbearable so we seek out strong drugs to numb it.
I ask why is it not possible for us to be ourselves always? We can swathe ourselves in a cocoon of love, love which lubricates all beings, real fearless unconditional love like you and I live? You have always taught me not to depend on anyone, on anything, and that true happiness is deep inside me not outside in rituals and rites. I must and will bring it out for myself, but those around me are still deluded, hankering after something confiscated – their god, their heart and soul as expressed by someone else.
Since the river, I have become a teacher, and a nurse, bringing up more soldiers for “beloved” leader to deploy, and then caring for them unconditionally when they are injured. This is my way of being myself. I can love any complete stranger tending them in this way. I am certain that such wide love is not an opiate giving me false hope, distracting my discontent so I will not mutiny. This is my nature contained respectfully behind my nurse’s apron and my teacher’s uniform.
One day, a city plaza is bombed by the enemy. Spindly death machines swing through space, their bombs kicked off their rusting underbodies by jack-boots. The wounded are my pupils so we bundle them and their limbs into the hold of a hospital ship which leaves dock immediately. Still the aerial pests pelt us until we are shipwrecked, floating specks ducking below the flaming ocean to dodge the shots! I help an injured soldier to keep afloat holding on to a black spent spherical mine. His blood spills out, his legs pulp and untreatable below the waves. Eventually, the enemy swarm moves on to other flowers.
We sleep, then wake with a start to check that we are still holding on. The time for the soldier’s departure has come, so, one-handed, he pulls aside the collar of his uniform to reveal a chain, then drags it up to show me what is clanking on the end of it. Can you imagine what is there Papa? A beautiful crucifix, encrusted with gems; a glorification of God, the number one enemy of the state!
He hands it to me, asks me to keep it safe and use it to get through the madness of this war. He calls me ‘Madonna,’ ‘the savior,’ asking for my blessing so he can go to heaven. I put it over my head quickly for fear it sinks like everything else.
Then, the soldier cannot hold on any longer: his blood tap cannot be turned off with all this salt. I glance behind me to help any more surfaced survivors, and he has gone, slipped below. Now, I am the only survivor bobbing on this black bauble of war, and I cry out, horrified. My fingers move slowly towards the crucifix now hanging round my neck, and then suddenly I see our wooden boat Papa, the deep green body of the river moving steadily with it.
It is then that I deeply understand the difference between sea-water and fresh water. A great river is a large body, a substantial limb, while the ocean is many smaller bodies, made mercurial by salt, dancing at the command of Master Wind and Mistress Tide. Those bodies surround and begin to engulf me now as I cry and kick them away.
But then once more, I feel your cheek against mine, and I am the river and the river is me. You are me and I am you. And I know I must go on with the show. I deeply sleep a river sleep of large limbs which turns away the fickle salty dancers, the crucifix forgotten.
I open my eyes and see land. I wonder why I did not slide down to jellify with the wounded soldier. What can be driving me to continue on, except to be with you in our river boat forever.
I release my fixed grip of the black sputnik mine with difficulty, and my feet touch the bottom as I struggle to push through the dancers. I collapse on the shallow beach edged with oleanders, still at last. The dancing goes on but at a distance, and as I turn to look at a ship’s hooting and to scream for help, the ship explodes. I bury my chapped cheek and paper lips in cool sand. Then, I hear something moving rapidly through the air towards me, but feel immune. Perhaps I am its target and will be coming back to you at the river earlier than expected. But the target is beside me, its impact covering me with lucky sand.
If the impact has damaged me, I vow not to care, but I am numb. After a while, resting somewhere between water-worlds, I turn my head to perhaps see, unless I am blind, or to hear, unless I am deaf, what heavy creature has cratered the beach so close to me. Papa, you would not believe what lay there!
My eyes meet other white, narrow stone eyes, staring. They are those of our illustrious leader, defiled by birthday cake! A huge white plaster bust of him has been hurled from the ship into my personal space. And I suddenly have hope that the ship was loaded only with hundreds of such cargo, all blown to pieces of soggy dust, never to reach the civic areas of a thousand cities, never to enforce drab collectivism and give other false hopes.
The crucifix. I take it in my fingers. Papa do I feel something watching me, protecting me? Is it you? Can this encrusted metal shape, this artifact, make me feel something? Can it change my destiny? I have been highly trained to know that this is just a phantasy, and yet I can hear you saying, ‘We need to have dreams. Can the leader even tear our dreams from us as he has everything else?’
Must we believe that there is nothing else in our lives except birth and death and suffering, and working for others in between? Must we accept that there is nothing held in the wonders of nature and weather, nothing more than H2O in a heartfelt tear? Do I have to eradicate all magic from my life?
With such questions asked and immediately allowed to evaporate, as you always instructed, I find myself in an apple orchard in the mountains. The villagers have locked themselves into their houses because the enemy is near, scouting for supplies on bicycles and horses. But we, another fatherless daughter and myself, are picking the apples before they drop and spoil. The sun shines hot and as we reach to pick, we hear authoritative voices shouting to each other in a foreign tongue. We look at each other affirming that we have flown the coop, watery-eyed, that the villagers’ locks and window glass will likely not keep the enemy out.
We are still, listening, the crucifix inside my blouse. Then we hear the gypsies coming, talking loudly, unafraid, petitioning the officer, insisting on their rights with nothing to lose. They have no single thought for self-preservation, living embedded in the moment as they do in a flurry of violin vibrations and scintillating tambourine cymbals. For a moment, the officer is engulfed by their moment, clasped by its hope, but then he pushes them away, dismisses them, and they shout on as he goose-steps away.
They become suddenly silent, except for a small voice, keeping that moment going by shaking her quarter-size tambourine and murmuring their jubilant song. She does not stop twirling and keeping the cymbals quivering against her tiny body even when the machine gun is cocked, and even as it fires. The rapid fire slaughters the adult’s full embedded moment with enemy past-and-future sharp fragments. His fellow officers demand why he has to kill them, why he must destroy every single insect that irritates him. He laughs, saying that nobody in their right mind needs a gypsy. After all, his esteemed leader has such wisdom about the losers in the human race.
The small remaining gypsy is not intimidated by his metal invective spat from the narrow barrel of his gun. She will always stay in the moment, carrying on her line. She is indestructible like me and you because she has never learned fear, or choked down the lessons of ‘time’ and ‘space.’
The officer brushes aside his friends’ pity and tears, and spies the abundance of our waiting orchard. He swivels his gun on to this back, and starts to climb the hill towards the laden trees. I stand rooted behind the huge green spheres, being ‘tree,’ but he is guided to find my face hidden behind one especially large fruit. My brown eyes meet his blue, and his desire extends beyond biting into sweet moist apple flesh.
He drags me down the hill looking for somewhere dark and muffled to conceal his whelp of relief. In the barn, I escape his tight grip and run on ahead to hide. He stalks me in the dark hay stalls, but Papa I am saved, keeping myself for you. My ‘daughter’ friend is waiting with a pitch fork to pin his greedy eyes to the timbers. His friends come looking for him, and together, we finish the remnant enemy off. We clamber back to the orchard from legal murder, and continue to harvest apples in sacks and buckets before they drop and rot.
Again, I feel the crucifix dangling between my perspiring breasts, and again I feel some forbidden benevolent vigilance. Then, I realise indignantly that no-one can tell me what I feel, no-one can sterilise my human spirit. Perhaps it is me who is watching myself behind the apple heads? And in that moment, I am like the tiny gypsy girl, stepping beyond the limits imposed by our own minds.
I become the blessed apples, just as I am you and our green luscious river. The agonised crucifix is somehow bringing me to a different place, like rubbing a magic lamp and realising that anything is possible if we simply open the door closed by another limiter.
We quietly store the apples in a nearby shed in the dark on straw, crunching on a few and dripping apple juice everywhere. We can hear the arrival of special motorized forces, and realise that one of the bicycle officers must have got away to rouse the waiting battalion. We go back behind the apple branches and watch.
All the villagers are forced out of their locks and windows, and herded together near the community hall. I see my benefactors and my friend’s family among the doomed assembly: children and grandparents, dogs and babies. We want to scream, but clamp our dirty sticky hands over our mouths knowing that we must be saved for other reasons as yet unknown.
Eventually, the crowd are quiet as they are ushered into the community hall, as if attending a meeting to plan social events – the next ‘couple-contract’ or’ baby-naming’ – the conducting of ‘marriages’ and ‘baptisms’ now constitutes a criminal act. Perhaps some of them distract themselves with memories of wild celebrations and concerts of the past, as they are locked in. The petrol cans are emptied and the flame-throwers ignited. The screams are short-lived, but I know their vibrations will be stored among the spheres for all eternity. They have gone to the Veil of Tears, compliant but utterly deluded.
At night, as the roasting smell diminishes and the battalion has moved on after settling their scores, we start to walk, munching apple supplies to sustain us. We have no particular direction, no map, only a terrain on the sunny side of the mountain with food and water. We talk little so I can go to our river and check your cheek, and eventually in the middle of a burned hay field, to our surprise we see a basilica. We thought all of them in our district had been burned and flattened.
We cautiously enter but it is deserted, the treasures pilfered, apart from the glorious madonna icon, lavished with copper and bronze, hanging high above the altar. I know somehow we will be safe here, so we set about making beds and bringing water from a small well nearby.
We fill a tin bath with fresh water and harvest illegal ‘Our Lord’s Candle’ flowers growing in the rocks above the field, mashing them to make odourless frothy shampoo. We scrub our bodies and take out the combs in our hair to penetrate deep into the scalp. I remove the crucifix whilst I wash, but it catches the light from the skylight of the highest dome, the heart of the church. It scintillates and reflects the beautiful devotional paintings inside the dome.
As we scrub each other, we stare up into the madonna’s diamond eyes of copper and on up into the blue heaven of the saints and apostles. We ask why we cannot be allowed to have such comfort from such beauty as a compliment to our true nature. We ask with bitter tears, why we must no longer have any secrets, anything sacred to us. It is natural that there are invisible things which we each can touch in our own unique way, is it not? I have your cheek and the green river which no-one can ever take from me.
One day, I return from collecting blue berries and more apples from local orchards, but see that the uniforms have found our holy camp. Prosaic bicycles thrown down in a hurry and a bone-shaker motorbike and side-car with warm tyres block the main entrance double doors. Once they opened for the procession of robed elders and full-voiced choristers in clouds of incense.
I run, sad to leave my mate, but driven on by madonna and crucifix, motivated by my secrets and my mission to tend the soldiers I have had a hand in rearing in their desperate moments.
As I move by night and sleep by day, tying myself high in a tree wrapped in camouflage, or under a half-destroyed tank, or in the animal stalls of ravaged farms, another sacred energy suddenly appears. Papa I can feel you nearby! This is the first time since the green river day. You are here, perhaps looking for me, or to experiment with God. This feeling lasts for only a few hours until the time of a huge explosion. A massive bomb is dropped nearby, and I must follow its cloud of black smoke.
I eventually end up back at the wheat field to see the basilica reduced to dust, but the wondrous madonna still hanging untouched. It shines out, radiating the sunlight in the rubble. And I know you were there, and that you too are moving on. You found traces of me, the scent of me, in that holy place, secreting them in your filthy clothes. I feel so blessed that our pantomime scenes briefly overlap, but reality is the green river.
As I move quickly from target to target, seeking out the wounded to ease their pain or patch them up, I scavenge medical supplies from clinics and bombed hospitals, morphine and bandages being the most important items. One day as I crouch by a stream munching on stale cakes from a bombed bakery, I hear a plane shot down – the clatter of rapid fire, the descending glissando as it dives vertically into a factory and explodes several times on impact. As I crouch, the sound of the bubbling stream leads to the feeling that I am not alone again, and the crucifix becomes hot on my breast. I follow the blast and start to look for survivors.
In the rubble, I spot the plane wedged in the shattered foundations, still burning. I shout for survivors and hear someone groaning. I lift away tin sheets and some fragments of timbers, and find the pilot, leaning upright against the smouldering bones of the plane. He is terribly burned, holding his arms away from his body because contact is unbearable. I move in front of him, and he tries to speak but his larynx is burned and only squeaks. I bandage his hand, protecting it from the air, knowing it is pointless to remove the heavy trench coat and leather pants. I prepare an injection of morphine and administer it and he calms down, allowing me to masquerade tending his many wounds. I lean over him, inspecting for shrapnel punctures, and find several large holes in his back which I must cover.
I am reaching around his wide chest with white bandages when his eye suddenly fills with light and the unburned cheek bulges with a smile. I stop and ask him why, and he indicates with his eyes, something glimpsed, glinting beneath my blouse. We both stop, he smiling more deeply and me looking down at what he beholds, and at first not remembering what might have attracted him. Then, we both acknowledge the crucifix, and we smile to have shared something so sceptic to our supposedly modern society.
He wants to take this rare treasure between his fingers, but his arms are so burned he cannot move them. His blotched and broken lips mouth words which ask me to show him what lies below it, imploring me to grant his final request, deliriously enunciating the word ‘heaven’ ‘heaven,’ another bacteria officially eradicated from our lives.
Morphine? Opium? What does it matter. If I can use my body to give him final peace, why shouldn’t I? Papa, this is the closest I ever get to another man. He cannot touch me, only with his eyes. As I start to undo the many layers and belt trusses collected on my scavenging tours, he stares, mouthing the word ‘Madonna,’ ‘my-lady.’ Papa, I have never felt so beautiful since that moment against you on the green river.
I unveil my beauty to him freely, knowing that he cannot touch me or himself to relieve the moment, to let it drain away as animals do. Is this what prostitutes felt like behind glass? Is it the sordid touching and barging that destroys human beauty? Trying to possess it, to preserve it, to make it private property, which is after all forbidden?
I slowly undress, pulling the layers over my head, letting the plumpness of my breasts drop. The gleaming broken body of Christ lies across my breast bone caked in gold and gems. My eyes settle down from inspecting myself to see if I am fully revealed to him, and I look up into his eye, anticipating his joy like a beacon in his pain. But his eye is fixed, his mouth open as if about to speak, and a thin rivulet of saliva trickles down into the rubble and blood at his feet. I remain still, completely still, my skin alert to the chill in the air, aware that I am the only being in tact in this scene.
We humans can never see our own backs except in a reflection, but I swear I could see my luminous nakedness that day. It was so striking in the char and twisted metal of industry and its natural outcome, war.
Towards the end of the war, I found my regiment and put on my uniform again, but could not be promoted for my bravery or my work with triage in the field, because I could no longer speak to tell the authorities. We were camped on a hill top near the enemy bunker, anticipating the reprisal that was about to happen at the front line. Waiting to treat the casualties, to amputate and relieve pain down in the trenches.
The green river had not lost any of its power for me despite the horrors we lived through each day. This was the only reality for me: In the background, the sacredness of the crucifix and the madonna, and my respect for those who still needed drugs for the illusion of their pain.
In the concrete bunker above the trenches, the enemies spied through gun slits and played gramophone records of mighty Wagner and Beethoven, their war muses. We looked down in the valley to see suddenly that civilian men were walking up in the direction of the bunker, and through our field glasses, we could see that they did not carry rifles or haul heavy cannon, but moved confidently holding stout sticks.We rubbed our eyes thinking we were dreaming as full symphony orchestras mounted towards their climaxes. More and more civilians appeared, and an army of accordion players with them, singing and dazzling with the gypsy folk music of the warrior.
It was then that I actually saw you Papa in your full regalia as colonel. You were leading the surge of people moving steadily up the hill towards the bunker. I ran, bursting out of the arms of my comrades, shouting at the top of my lungs, the first time I had uttered a sound from my mouth for several years.
At first, you could not hear me, glancing casually at the jack-rabbit bobbing down the hill vaguely in your direction. But then you caught a fragment of sound and shape and put them together, realising that it was actually me. That it could only possibly be me. And you started to run on uneven boggy ground, your eyes lighting up, the tears rising.
We got closer, you slowing down aware of some danger that I was not, me running on unbridled, still a child. As we met, at arms length not able to bring our cheeks together once again, you held me still, trying to calm me enough to make me look down at my feet. I looked down and realised that your jack boot was standing on one of my feet, which in turn had depressed the detonator of a land mine.
You spoke urgently but calmly Papa, as always. Your voice soft, high pitched, expressive, but urgent. No time to let the tears flood, the locking of our cheeks together. One of us would be blown up, and you were determined it would not be me. You reached into your breast pocket and brought out my comb from the basilica, saying you knew I had been there with the Madonna.
Then, you ordered me in military fashion as I stuttered and protested, to lift my foot out of my boot and step away, then turn and walk back up the hill, slowly and quietly without disturbing the ground. I protested, trying to spit out words that had congested my body for so long, but unable to compete with your vocal urgency and skill.
I turned from the glorious sight of you, and then we both winced at a huge explosion up at the bunker. One of your snipers high in a tree, one of the few left with a working gun, had picked off the main bombardier, and set off a chain reaction which detonated all the amassed ammunition in the bunker. The enemy was annihilated in one act, and I had found my papa. All in one of ‘time’s’ precious moments!
Ah, the deluded nature of ‘time’ and ‘space!’ As I slowly climbed back up the hill, away from you, and you made to move, you knew that you would detonate the mine! If one moment can contain both the zenith and nadir of a life, this was it.
You will eternally unconditionally wait for me on the green river. It is clear that I must be a Madonna guiding my people to reality and independence, for some ‘time’ and ‘space’ to come.