Tuesday, January 19, 2010

noli me tangere

My dearest sister, my Margaret,
You must forgive the scarcity of letters from me. You would not believe the hardships we have had to endure. This winter is unlike any I’ve yet to live through. The snow piles up to the base of the windows. It’s as if the house were built down into the earth. It is peculiar this year in that the snow not only blankets every surface but also smothers each extremity; every branch, every wire is frozen clean around with white. The stand of trees outside the kitchen, the old maples seem studded with feathers. I was watching them this morning as water boiled for coffee. I kept expecting them to shake off their soil and beat their branches into the sky.
Prices are rising sharply for every supply. I’ve not had butter or sugar in almost three weeks. Luckily, Charles and I have been able to keep the children sheltered from the understanding of how harshly this season is affecting us. We’ve plenty of firewood and a surplus of canned vegetables. If nothing else, we will struggle through this season.
I have been having that dream again. The one with the wolves. In this most recent one, I am in the kitchen punching down dough for the day. I am wrapped in the soft light of the morning, the perfume of yeast, and the occupation of my hands in something simple. It is not my kitchen here, but the one of the house when we were girls, all expanse and grey stone. I remember how chill the stones would be as we slunk in to steal cakes after cook had left. I am barefoot in my dream. I am wearing a simple grey dress and a muslin apron. The stones are cool on my feet. The dough is warm beneath my fists. Gasps of air escape it as I strike it. The ceramic bowl rattles against the rough wood of the work table. In my dream I close my eyes and imagine that I am Mother. Oh, how I miss Mother. She is the one who taught us to bake our first loaves. I close my eyes and feel that I am Mother. I have her hands, the pinky finger ground down by the corn mill. I have her simple flowered dress, her ravenous laugh. I feel the weight of her history, but cannot recall it. In my dream, I know I am not alone. I turn around, keeping my eyes closed. It is important that I think that I am Mother. If I opened my eyes I would check my hands and see my pinky stuck with bread dough. I would see it long and slender instead of the compressed shape left by the corn mill. I reach down and feel the fur of a wolf, grasp between his shoulders. I take a clump of fur in my dough-stuck hand. I follow as the wolf walks. I leave the bread dough behind. Out the door my eyelids flare weak red in the morning light. I hear the clamor of the geese as we cross the yard. I hear the gasp of the goose girl. I hear the grass rustle against my skirt.
I feel as if I have been wolf for thousands of years. I can recall moving through the pines in pursuit of prey. I have felt thousands of nights in the dew on my fur. I have hunted deer, cattle, sheep and in leaner times smaller prey. I have lost myself in the rush of paws through the undergrowth, the saliva slavers from my lolling tongue. The woodland floor moves underpaw as I track, sunlight dapples my fur dark and light.I have run for countless hours, always ending in the kill, the metallic flare flashing back from my muzzle, rushing down my throat. Margaret, you must believe me when I say that I do not want to stop when I eat the heart, the liver and the lungs first. I do not touch the contents of an herbivore’s stomach. I do not understand how I know to eat the leg muscles next. I remember the past smells of brothers and sisters. I do not know how I speak in strings of vowels, chill and mournful, slipping from my throat. The strings of silver from my pack move off into the sky and splash against each other. I watch them weave in the moonlight. The worst part of this, Margaret, is that I take pleasure in losing myself. It feels like coming home – as if I can almost remember how to move a part of myself I had forgotten existed.
Do you remember when Father decided for us to move out of the city? How Mother resisted. Of course you don’t, you were only an infant then. It was my duty to hold you on the long drive out. You were silent the entire time, your eyes opened wider than I had seen them. I held you up to the window so you could take in the change in landscape. Expansive swells of grey-green grass nodding in the wind beneath that endless grey sky. There always seemed to be a forest on the edge of the horizon. Pines hemmed us in. I remember how lonely the house looked as we pulled up the drive. After the crowd of the city, Hillford Shire seemed a sentinel against the surrounding wild. Why did Father choose to move us so far?
Margaret, I know all their names. To call them names seems so crude. Each name is a collection of sensation, a bundling of memory, or narrative. To call another was to pass through that memory. Margaret, my eyes glinted gold in the light. My name was in those eyes. They held the last light of the sun as it sank beneath the treetops. I flared with that final burst, all urgency and passing. Margaret, I know all their smells. I remember all the twists of scent. I remember Charles, and the children’s scent, Mother’s, yours. Human scent is soft. It is like the bubbles in a glass of beer, pale and passing in the gold and then the cannonade of froth. I remember you in the scent of school desks and needlework. I remember you in the smell of cinnamon buns in the oven and conversations by the light of a lantern. I remember you in the smell of snow. Have been thinking of you often in this winter.
You were old enough to remember when they found Mother. Do you remember? She has resisted our move, but took the land instantly. Do you remember her garden? She was satisfied with the neat rows at first, but started to venture to the forest for its herbs, its fungus, the seclusion of its shade. She took to the land, but the forest took her. Do you remember the quiet that crept over her? It clouded her eyes, ate at the edges of her laugh. She had trouble remembering us. Your laugh could always call her back. You were the one who found her body. You came running to me, in a fit. I was punching down dough, helping cook in the kitchen. I always felt guilty for slipping cakes. I went with you and we found her torn and red. We buried her alone in the trees and at supper told Father what had happened. He stopped eating and understood.
In my dream, Charles comes to live on the edge of the forest. I come to him from time to time, but always melt away back into the woods. We pass the years bound like this. His patience carves lines into his face. I have felt a thousand lives, Margaret. I have had gallons of blood pump through these veins. I have tasted meat, just killed. I have brought litters upon litters into the woods. I have taught the young to scent, to stalk, the hunt. I have gone off to die countless times. Age dusts my pelt with grey. I meld back into the briars, the brambles, the clump of blackberries.
You must believe me, Margaret, that I am entirely beside myself when I awake. Usually I have startled Charles in thrashing in my sleep and he is there, holding me as I awake. I do not know what I would do if he were not clasping me about the shoulders. Each time I wake, it feels harder to remember who it is I am. Please do not mention this to any of the Aunts. I have enough of their attention as things stand. This winter will pass as will these dreams. I hope this letter finds you well and peaceful. They are both luxuries in this world.

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