Last night I dreamt that I had swallowed my mother. I woke up with an enormous bulge and knew that I would have to lie still for a few weeks until I had digested her. My bed had been transformed into the springy carpet of a tropical forest and I had grown six metres or more in length. My initial reaction was one of shock – I wanted to jump out of my new body into the familiar environment of my bedroom but I could not move.
A mosquito landed on my body. I could feel it tickle somewhere “down there” as I realized that I did not have the vocabulary to distinguish between large parts of myself. They felt warm under the sun. I began to feel sleepy, drifting into another world serenaded by the sounds of the forest. But wait! Yet another world? No! I could not afford to let go – I might never come back. And what would happen to my mother? I could not just let digestion take its natural course. My mother would disappear forever! She would be digested without further ado, without any thought or consideration. A feeling of panic came over me.
I decided to try to focus my concentration exclusively on the bulge. How was she feeling inside me? Could my mother feel anything at all? Was she conscious of my thoughts and feelings? A shudder ran through my whole body at the idea of such an invasion of my privacy. Did swallowing my mother mean that she now had unlimited access to every nook and cranny of my thoughts? Surely not! The mosquito’s tickling began to irritate me, but I felt too heavy to try to chase it away. Supposing she did have access to all of my philosophical meanderings, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing anyway. She would get the whole picture instead of the fragments I had communicated to her, sometimes eloquently, but more often than not, clumsily and incoherently. Did I get the whole picture? Perhaps I needed to swallow myself…More mosquitoes had landed on my runway and the tickling was becoming unbearable. Did it bother other boa constrictors in the same way? I wondered. But there were parts of the picture which my mother really shouldn’t see – parts which were none of her or anybody else’s business. Perhaps there were parts than even I should not see…But these thoughts were getting me nowhere – I didn’t seem to be any closer to having digested my mother.
Suddenly there was a crackling sound, the mosquitoes took flight and then a shadow cast itself over part of my body. It yelled something incomprehensible and within a matter of seconds I was covered by crisscrossing shadows and could no longer feel the intensity of the sun. One of the shadows began to poke me with what felt like a stick. Had they never seen a boa constrictor before? Or did they know that I had swallowed my mother? Had her absence been noted and they had been sent out to look for her? Well, it was too late. She was inside me now and there was nothing they could do. The shadows withdrew as if they had read my thoughts. The heat of the sun enveloped my body once again. I gave a long sigh of relief that rippled all the way down my body. Not even a mosquito to disturb me. But I still had to decide how I was going to digest my mother.
Should I digest her in phases, drawing on early memories leading up to the present or should I reverse the process and go back in time only after having digested the here and now? Somehow, it felt more natural to begin with the present and yet as I tried to concentrate it only made sense in the context of the past. So I turned my attention to early childhood memories but they seemed irrelevant to me now. It was no good; a chronological approach was not the best way to digest her. I realized that I had to try to integrate past and present and only then would conscious digestion become possible. It was such a struggle. The heat of the sun, the springy mattress beneath me and the soothing sounds of the forest were all accomplices in lulling my senses. I was slipping away into a hazy world of gushing rivers and gentle breezes. Not quite! The teasing mosquitoes had returned.
Integrate past and present – but how? There was no easy answer. Perhaps that was why digestion could not be complete within a few hours, at least not when you had swallowed your mother. Perhaps I had to be resigned to the fact that it would take a long time. But would resignation lead to unconscious digestion? Surely there could be nothing worse than discovering that two weeks had gone by and that my mother had disappeared without a trace whilst I had laid in a state of oblivious slumber? The bulge would have vanished and maybe I would be able to recover my former body – but at what price? I had to be patient and alert.
The suns’ rays were less fierce upon me now and I realized that the night was approaching. I felt scared. I had never spent the night in a tropical forest and didn’t know what to expect. I half expected that any minute I would wake up in my friendly bedroom and this whole nightmare would be over. But then I remembered I had already woken up with the bulge after dreaming that I had swallowed my mother. So this was for real then? I shuddered. I had no choice. If I wanted to return to my former self I had to digest my mother – consciously. If I failed to achieve this, who was to tell if I would not remain a boa constrictor for the rest of my conscious life? But no, unconscious digestion signified that my conscious life would have come to an end anyway. This was a matter of my own survival too. The stakes were high: I risked becoming an unconscious boa constrictor and losing myself for ever. I found courage in this thought and decided to confront the night. I was, after all, a boa constrictor and this was my natural habitat, so there was no reason to be afraid.
The sounds of the forest had deepened in tone and within minutes I was enveloped in a blanket of darkness. This is my natural habitat, I kept telling myself; there is no reason to be afraid. There were fewer distractions in the darkness of the night and by repeating these reassuring words courage began to well up from inside. I also felt relieved that the sun’s burning arrows had been deflected elsewhere and comforted by the warm breath of the forest floor. I didn’t even care about the mosquitoes anymore. Anyway, I had only dreamt that I had swallowed my mother. Surely that meant that I didn’t have to believe that part of the nightmare. I tried to cast my mind back to recall how it had all happened but all I could see was the immensity of the night. It filled me with wonder. How small and insignificant I was. The concern of how best to digest my mother caved in under the weight of the night’s solemn presence and I turned my mind to more philosophical matters. I remembered my brother once asking me that if I found it difficult to imagine the universe going on for ever, then wasn’t it just as difficult to imagine what came after the universe? But I wasn’t going to fall into another trap. I knew the hegemony of the night was an illusion, that the black blanket would eventually be pulled away and that the sun would come crashing through once more. And what about me? I was going to wake up as safe and sound as a matchstick in a matchbox.
I went to an art gallery and stood in front of a painting of a woman standing at a crossroads. She had her back turned to me so we could not see each other. It was not clear what direction she would take and as I stood watching her I was almost sure that I saw her body twitch. A couple came by straining to see the painting. I could see from the corner of my eye the young woman, dressed in a mini-skirt, stare at my protruding tummy. Her partner mumbled something and tugged on her shoulder, clearly indicating a desire to move on to the next painting. But she would not move. She was looking at me looking at the woman at the cross-road while I was also looking at her out of the corner of my eye. We were locked into a threesome. The man began to shift uncomfortably from one foot to the next and I smiled as the young girl disentangled herself from his octopus hold and moved closer to the painting.
The woman at the crossroads paid no attention to either of us as she stood in a position of power amidst the bright open space that had been painted around her. For a few moments I also forgot the young girl at my side and became transfixed by the strength of the painting. This woman was free, free to go in any direction she chose…I had a cough at my side and then the footsteps of the young man as he walked confidently away. He was shortly followed by a gliding pair of slim legs as I was left alone, big and cumbersome. I did not move. Somehow I felt that if I stood as still as the woman in front of me, I too would be all powerful – free to go in any direction I chose.
More people drew near to look at the painting but I was only half conscious of their presence. I could feel myself leaving the gallery behind as the painting began to grow before my eyes. As I focused on the woman’s long blonde hair, I realized that I was standing only a few steps behind her. I held my breath and strained my neck forward in the hope of hearing something. Was that her breathing I could hear or was it mine? I cast my eyes over her right shoulder and my nostrils were suddenly invaded by the sweet smell of the freshly cut grass in the fields beyond. Intoxicated by the open space in front of us, I felt a tremendous urge to push the woman out of the way. But she would not move. I took a few steps closer and only then did it occur to me, as I stood right behind her, that she could not move. Her role was to fill the space of canvas and to create only the illusion of choice. The smell of freshly cut grass had gone stale, to be replaced by the pungent smell of oil paints. I felt disappointed. No wonder she had been painted without a face. The secret of her freedom was to be rendered powerless; left without any real choice. My disappointment became triumphant as I realized that my limited portion of freedom had given me all the power I needed to make an authentic choice. No more dilly dallying at crossroads for me! I started to take bold strides backwards and as the painting receded before my eyes, the sounds of the gallery began to fill my ears. I found myself surrounded by a group of school children and I could hear the eager voice of their teacher instructing them on how to “read” the painting. Distracted by my movements, a small boy with thick black glasses and dirty knees pointed a knobby finger at me and exclaimed in a loud voice, “She’s got a bun in the oven!” The other children giggled and the embarrassed school teacher was left speechless – torn between apologizing to me and reprimanding the young offender. I smiled and looked back at the painting. The woman at the crossroads had disappeared leaving an incongruous blank in the middle of the canvas.
We met in the Spring. The air was full of hope and expectation as birds, flowers and bees went about their busy business. Inspired by so much carefree activity, we too plunged head-first into the budding promises of our newly discovered friendship. We spoke with passion and sincerity, putting the world right over afternoon teas in cheerful cafés and in leisurely strolls through boisterous parks. The world around us applauded as we took flight into our own and each other’s dreams and confidences – soul mates at last! We had found each other.
The Summer arrived. The freshness of Spring had given way to a relentless heat and we slowed down our pace, basking in the assurance of our newfound intimacy. We had lost the drive for urgent conversation and were content to look on as others braved the cold waters at the beach’s edge: children building castles in spite of the menaces of the rising tide. We looked knowingly on. The evenings became cooler and dusk ever nearer and you lent me your jacket in late August as we walked on the beach. It felt warm and protective, sheltering me from the night’s breeze.
But by mid-September your jacket was no longer warm enough and in October our feet began to trample falling dreams in streams of yellow and brown. A blanket of golden melancholy overcame us as we watched our dreams turn from green, to yellow to brown and decay. And yet we were not sad. There was something almost inevitable about the whole process and as the leaves were swept up off the ground by gusts of bullying wind, so we went our separate ways, caught up in life’s whirlwinds.
I saw you crossing the street on an icy January morning, enveloped in winter garments. Your big thick boots left dirty marks on the freshly fallen snow and I turned to look at diamonds in a jeweller’s window to avoid eye contact. You walked straight past – had you noticed me? The ice cold air was not conducive to loitering for polite conversation and I sighed in remembrance of our heated confidences in the heady days of Spring. What had gone wrong? I recalled the pain I had felt as we slowly discovered that we were still strangers – strangers caught in a whirlpool of discovery- but strangers nonetheless.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I turned round and found your red face gleaming at me through a woollen frame.
“I thought it might be you”
Your words cut through the air in gusts of heat.
“Do you want to go for a coffee?”
It was a kind gesture that I could not refuse, but it was hard to conjure up the Spring in the middle of Winter. Perhaps there was no need. We sat down, hands wrapped around steaming mugs and I could think of a hundred and one questions to ask you, but felt that I no longer had the right to intrude. You seemed to be having the same problem. We spoke about the weather and other trivialities and finally parted. We agreed to meet up again soon.
The end of March and the ice began to melt. As the Spring birds, flowers and bees went about their busy business, I was cautious about so much carefree activity and felt that it would have been better if we had met in a more seasoned season.
It was a small kitchen and Maria explained to me that it had been built taking her size into account. She had been asked to stand at the place where the sink was to be installed for the chimney breast to be brought down to her height at that point. The resulting tailor made wall was built out around the chimney, fitted with cupboard space and cut off just above Maria’s head. One either side of the wall, the ceiling was much higher; to the right there was the hearth and stove and to the left the fridge and small table we all crowded around at mealtimes. I could just about fit underneath the chimney breast without having to strain my neck, so I had no excuses to prevent me from washing up. Manuel, on the other hand, was much taller than his wife, although I’m sure it never crossed anybody’s mind that he should put on an apron!
The moments that I cherished most were when we had all finished eating and the men had left the kitchen so that I found myself alone with Maria. It was a moment that she could afford to relax for a few minutes, sit still and chat. The dirty plates, cutlery, glasses and saucepans spread out around us like the spoils in the aftermath of battle. It gave me a sense of deep satisfaction to spend those few precious moments in private conversation, knowing that any minute the disordered kitchen would catch her eye and our little chat would come to an end. I felt privileged to sit and listen to her tales from the past, knowing that she as a discreet woman, very skilled in holding her tongue. I had learnt to read Maria’s facial expressions, to guess when she was annoyed or disagreed with what was being said. I knew that she liked to keep herself to herself, so during such moments when she entrusted her thoughts to my keeping, I used to feel a warmth flow through my veins.
I don’t recall why Maria began to talk about her uncle Simão. It may have been on the occasion when I asked her what he used to be like as a young man in his thirties and was surprised to be told that she couldn’t say because she was only six at the time. Only then did I realize that the age difference between them had gone through so many different phases: he had been an adult and she a child, whilst now he was like a child in his old age. It was strange to imagine Maria six years old, subject to the authority of uncle Simão. The only creatures under his authority now were the sheep he took to graze early each morning in the fields to the south of the village. He was, in fact, totally dependent upon Maria who cooked his meals, washed his clothes and even made his bed. He had, however, maintained a token of independence by continuing to live in the house across the way, even after Maria’s mother and aunt had died. It was only then, when his sisters were no longer able to cook for him, that he began to eat in Maria’s house. However, he would never linger after mealtimes but would promptly get up after downing his coffee, leaving the table full of the determination and energy of a young man in pursuit of adventure.
It was only after visualizing Maria as a little girl and Uncle Simão as a young man that I came to appreciate the complexity of their relationship. Although on the surface everything appeared to be simple enough, to the keen observer, Maria’s facial expressions seemed to tell a different story. My suspicions were confirmed one Sunday afternoon when she took me by the hand and led the way more than fifty years down memory lane. They were not her memories, but her mother’s memories that came bursting out into the kitchen - with such force that I was left somewhat dazed. Maria went back to the time when she was in her mother’s womb, when uncle Simão had showered torrents of thunder upon her poor mother’s head. Exercising his rights as the offended brother, he had taken the only photograph his sister possessed of the handsome young culprit in question and ripped it into pieces before her tearful eyes. To this day, Maria has not once set her searching eyes upon the face of her father. She was in a fiesta once when an adult grabbed her by the hand.
“Come on! I’m going to show you your father”.
But he had vanished amidst the crowds of dancing couples, groups of roaming men and giggling girls. Maria later heard that he had immigrated to Argentina, taking with him a wife who was later to return a widow. She brought back a half sister for Maria, but neither of them could offer her a photograph or portrait of her father.
I suddenly remembered that on the wall of the dining room, which was reserved for special occasions, hung a photograph of Manuel’s parents. They stood side by side, up against a wall, wearing the kind of solemn expression that was no doubt considered to be appropriate in those days, when the power of the camera to freeze a fleeting moment for posterity had not yet lost any of its magic. Maria had been denied that magic. She had depended upon the words of others, upon those who had told her what a handsome young man her father had been. That part of the story she had told me many a time; but the destructive rage of uncle Simão gave a new twist to her tale. It left me pensive well after Maria had raced back up memory lane to catch up with the washing up. I couldn’t help thinking that the passage of time had brought about its own kind of moral revenge, by placing Simão like a helpless child into the caring hands of the child he had once rejected. For despite not being able to forget, there was no doubt that Maria had been able to forgive:
“How can I bear a grudge against him? He’ll be eighty-five next month!”
I have been carrying you for six months and only today have I truly woken up to your presence. First you were a butterfly, gently fluttering inside me. You made me smile, but I know now that a smile was not enough. So you began to make your presence felt more clearly. Excited, I called upon friends and family to feel your kicks. But I was missing the point, at least until today. You see, everyone was telling me how much trouble you were going to give me, how I had no idea the degree to which you were going to change my life. “I can’t imagine what it will be like in three months time,” I told a friend philosophically. “Well, you’ll just be totally taken over by the baby. Nappies, feeding, bathing, washing, drying…”
Go on say it! And baby crying. A humid mist enveloped me – this was not what I wanted to hear. I began to want to stop time, to make the most of my freedom before you arrived to take it away. I felt as if there was something smug about the way people forewarned me of my fate.
Today I placed my hands lovingly over my tummy and as I caressed myself I knew I was also caressing you. I began to speak to you in a way I never had done before and a warm wave of affection rolled up my body as you began to kick furiously. For the first time I felt as though we were communicating. I realized that you are not only a combination of my father and me but that somehow you have come from far beyond both of us. I became aware of you as a person – perhaps even a messenger who has come to teach me many things. I told you are welcome you are and you kicked again excitedly. I realized that I need not fear losing myself, that the excitement I feel about life can be shared with you, that you have not come to take my excitement away.
But what about the nappies? I told you I knew it would be hard work but that that was not the whole story. Experience had taught me that even the things I cherished doing most in life had their difficult moments and I knew the sense of achievement had always overshadowed everything else. I told you with confidence that I was not going to be an “either/or” kind of mother. You kicked in agreement and I felt excited about our new partnership. I didn’t want to stop time anymore but neither was I in a hurry.
Today I am aware that we have three months left to get to know each other before you are born and although you will be a helpless, little baby looking to me for everything, something deeper tells me that you will bring me an unspoken wisdom from far beyond.