The drop of water hit the side of her nose and ran down to her lips. It tasted sweet and cool.
The shock of the sensation woke her out of a dreamless sleep. She took a sharp breath in and was assaulted by a strong damp, earthy smell. It was almost overwhelming in its complex nature. It seemed to hit many parts of her nose, the back of her throat, the back of her tongue. And now there was a richness of flavour gradually awakening her mouth. There was the smell of hummus, the smell of gum and wattle, the smell of rain, the smell of moss, the taste of sweetness and of bitterness.
She’d had a dream like this when she was nine. She dreamt she was in a field, lying in the sun. Everything had an exaggerated reality. The colours were somehow brighter, the breeze deliciously sensual on her skin. The feeling of the earth on her back seemed to envelop her. She turned to the side and could see into a clump of long grass and field flowers. In her dream she imagined walking through the grass and disappearing into a different world just like Alice.
It reminded her that as a child she used to lie close to the earth and imagine a whole insect world of insect cities. The backyard became a whole country with mountains and deserts, forests and glades. She was the freest she had ever felt. This world was her creation and she could do whatever she wished.
So this must be a lucid dream. She tried to move but had no control – she was awake in a dream. She relaxed with this thought. She felt safe. In fact the sensation was quite ecstatic, something to be savoured, something regained.
When had she felt like this before? The question changed the dream. The earthy smell disappeared and she was six. She was on a swing. Her father was pushing her and as each swing took her higher she was getting lost in the sensation. She knew she was safe with her father there and part of her knew she was holding on tightly, so she was able to let another part of her soar with each swing. The pleasure kept building at each swing and she could imagine herself letting go and soaring into the sky.
There were other times of letting go, of running free as the breeze, of holding her breath and diving under the water. One warm night she snuck out, took off all her clothes and lay naked under the stars. She remembers going into a kind of trance where the earth felt like the back of some living thing and the stars were angels dropping small kisses on her flesh.
She couldn’t remember when she stopped having this feeling; somehow she remembered it always being there. It was just that another part of her stopped thinking about it and that part kind of took over.
When did the backyard cease to become another country?
A sadness filled her now. At some point she gave up her freedom. She remembered the taunts of others, of her brother. She remembered her parents snapping her out her reveries with a call to dinner or to some chore. Perhaps it was no-one’s fault, it was just the constant call to other things.
The sadness was building. She realized that she had been holding this sadness a long time. She remembered that it engulfed her when she was thirteen. She remembers looking in the mirror at how her body had changed. She didn’t like the hair growing on her body and the swelling of her breasts, the change in her face. She didn’t like the change inside. Sometimes her insides felt like swirling seaweed pushed by a turbulent sea. She felt moody and out of control. One hot night she thought she would sneak out and lie naked under the stars as she used to but she felt overcome by shame and guilt. She was driving that part of herself away. She remembered that she and her brother used to dance naked under the sprinkler, now he looked at her differently. There were now a whole lot of new rules she had to live by that she didn’t understand, and guilt had become one of them.
She couldn’t explain it. Her parents had always been open about sex and puberty but nothing they ever said had prepared her for the inner, psychic turmoil. She didn’t exactly feel guilty about sex. She had explored her body without shame. She knew she wasn’t going to be punished. But she did feel guilt over loosing something essential to herself. She felt guilty because at some point she had betrayed herself.
She remembers long teen years when pleasure was always linked to guilt. Perhaps it was the watchful eyes of her peers, eyes that were acutely aware of anything that marked her as different, uncool, nerdy, spacko, or any other definition designed to haul her back to the group norm.
Where did they pick these ideas up from anyway? She remembers other kids, goths, skinheads, headbangers, nerds, all constrained by the norms and uniforms of their pack. It was too simple to say they were the product of commercial exploitation; often things became cool and uncool as quick as the shifting wind. All she knows is that she watched what she did. Carefully.
Radha was the first to snap her out of her adolescent indulgence. Radha was a fiercely intelligent, independent and angry young woman. They met at University. She remembers Radha’s dark skin and indeterminate origin. She found out later that Radha was part Tamil, part French and part Burmese. Her life had been one of constant change, born in Sri Lanka, early childhood in India, a stint in Africa, early teens in Holland. Her father and mother were both academics and she spent her childhood amongst an odd collection of intellectuals, bohemian pretenders and artists. What was it her father and mother studied? Her father studied comparative religion and was a specialist in early Dravidian culture and her mother was a specialist in the art of Southern India.
Whatever. Radha excited her and as they shared their life stories she was able to remember her childhood eccentricities without shame.
One hot night they went skinny dipping at three in the morning, high on a cocktail of wine and hashish. The beach was deserted and they ran as hard as they could, screamed as hard as they could, swam in the pitch-black water and held their breaths as long as they could. Then, with their skins wet with salt water and with gritty sand heightening the sense of feel, Radha kissed her. The warmth and sweetness of her kiss mixed with the cool saltiness of the sea. She surrendered and allowed Radha’s mouth to find her clitoris. Waves of deep ecstasy were her reward and she slipped into a world half way between this and some other, distant place. In turn she found Radha’s vaginal lips in a tangle of dark pubic hair and found a place mixed with heat, sweetness and saltiness.
The memory of Radha’s orgasm creates echoes of her own somewhere deep inside of her stomach, creating a kind of satisfied longing.
It was transient. Life took a hold of them both and pulled them in different directions, but she remembers regaining some of her freedom. She was not the same after that.
Chris was a surprise. She kept looking into the eyes of women trying to find some spark of Radha’s fire. Mostly she found flashes of fear, shame and mistrust. She understood; she had been there herself. And then she saw Chris. He was at the door of her flat asking after Simon, one of her flat mates. He was dressed in hiking gear. She remembers his steady blue-grey eyes noticing her with unusual clarity and poise.
Two months later they slept together for the first time. She had slept with men, sort of – if you could call the slightly perfunctory and awkward wrestling ‘sex’. There was always a disharmony, a discordant clashing of arrhythmia. Too quick, too slow, not here, not there, not now.
Chris was neither hesitant nor in a rush. He was happy to follow and to lead, happy to be still and happy to be pushing her to her limits. Of course they had their off moments but finding their rhythm again was most of the fun. She began to see a kind of play in switching from chaos to harmony. A game of rediscovery.
One fresh spring night, with the scent of jasmine and wisteria wafting through the open window, their lovemaking became dreamlike. It was effortless. Chris was strangely still. He told her that he had no desire to rush. He just wanted to stay inside her. They stayed entwined. They slowed until the only sensation was the throbbing of blood through their bodies and the beating of hearts. She slipped out of full awareness and began to build toward climax slowly. The first was a small, delicate tremor. The rest built steadily and strongly. At the peak of the third wave she entered a drifting, free state. It was like the time on the swing when each push her father gave sent a rush of forces through her body, the rush of the forward swing as she reached higher and the almost gut wrenching collapsing rush as she fell backwards. And then that final rush as she reached the apogee and imagined herself flying up over the trees.
She was enjoying this dream, slipping in and out of remembrances of bliss. Remembering how deeply she had grown to love a woman and a man.
She was awoken by the sensation of heat on her forehead and a realization of being lost in a sea of red light. A fear grabbed her chest and she clawed for air. She tried to move but couldn’t. If this was a lucid dream then it was turning into a nightmare. She felt her eyelids fluttering. They were very dry and caked with dried tears. As she forced them open she was assaulted with bright sunlight. She gasped and hot, eucalyptus drenched air rasped through her nostrils. She tried to swallow but there was no moisture. The sound of cicadas became a deafening roar
Radha’s eyes were red. She was standing there naked, her long black hair swirling in the wind, her skin glistening with sweat. A trickle of menstrual blood flowed from a thick bush of pubic hair. She glared and ranted, ‘remember, remember’.
Chris reached the top first. He lay on the ledge and reached to give her a helping hand up. Her right leg was over the edge, the rope dangling awkwardly around her left knee. Her hands and knees were scratched and she was sweating and breathing heavily. But the exhilaration was worth it. As she stood shakily she was rewarded with a magnificent view of a pristine valley shimmering in the blue haze of eucalyptus oil released by the sun. She raised her arms and let out the ululation Radha had taught her on that wild night by the sea.
Radha turned the page and showed her a picture. A woman painted red and adorned with human skulls and severed limbs sat on a prostrate man painted white. An elaborate aura was painted behind her in rosy pink, shades of blue and highlights of gold. The woman was naked and had four arms. In one hand she held a piece of rope, in another a bow, the third held arrows and the fourth a flute. Radha was explaining that this was the god and goddess Shiva and Shakti. Shiva was in his passive form as Shava, the corpse, and Shakti in her active form as Kali, the goddess of destruction. Radha said that her parents raised her in the Hindu tradition and that for her Kali was a powerful symbol of feminine strength. In the picture Kali had the same calm look of a Buddha.
Why was she dreaming this?
Chris had been killed on impact. The driver was high on a cocktail of alcohol and amphetamines. His car was torn in two and scattered across the intersection. The accident ripped a hole in her heart as black and cold as a moonless night.
‘We spend our lives chasing transitory pleasure,’ Radha’s mother had said. ‘Kali is the mistress of both pleasure and the illusion of pleasure.’ She passed her a cup of Earl Grey tea, her grey hair catching the golden sunlight as she leaned over. Radha was sitting back eating a small Indian sweet cake and glancing wistfully out the window at a glorious sunset. ‘So it is she who creates the illusion of the world as the goddess Maya’. She sipped her tea and Radha turned to give her a small smile. ‘But it is also she who appears to us as the small blisses we seek, pointing us to the final bliss. She is the goddess of shifting appearances and the goddess of sex and death.’ Radha’s mother reached for a sweet cake and as she was chewing her first bite she leaned back, looked at Radha and said knowingly, ‘and we are all secretly in love with her and terrified of her at the same time.’
Her father gave her a final push and as she soared higher her heart seemed to leap out of her chest and go flying toward the sun. For a moment she wondered what it would be like to be the sunlight reaching down into the smallest dark corner.
Chris had loved rock climbing. So she gathered some items that had meant something to them both, the stub of a ticket to a concert, eagle feathers they had found on a climb, a photo of them at a party, and slipped them into her pack and set out to perform the ceremony that she hoped would start to settle the grief. It was something she had to do alone, the grief driving her from a source deep in her heart and gut.
The last time she saw Radha was at a Hindu temple. It was a celebration called navaratri, the nine nights; with three nights dedicated to each of the three Hindu goddesses: Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kali-Durga. Tonight was a sapta, a traditional dance in honour of Kali-Durga. Radha insisted that they wear traditional saris. Her mother would be singing songs in the traditional style. She welcomed it all. She was so glad to be pulled out of her white middle-class comfort zone.
The dance was circular and involved a repeated movement of tapping a stick in a delicate bowing movement. She had trouble at first but as she watched Radha she caught on. The pace quickened. Her head began to spin and she felt giddy and exhilarated. She soon lost herself in the rhythm and entered a kind of blissful trance state.
Her thoughts were swirling just like the dance…
The idea had been to climb to the peak at dawn and set up a small fire. She would burn the small collection of memorabilia and hopefully find some release.
It was dark and cold now. Drops of water were falling on her, the kisses of the stars. The rain was wetting her mouth and the corners of her eyes. It bought her awareness into sharp focus. This was not a lucid dream. She realized with a startled mixture of resignation and horror that she had slipped and fallen. She couldn’t move, which meant she had probably broken her neck, or her spine. And in her grief she had neglected to tell anyone she had planned to climb that day.
She thought she should panic but realized that would do nothing, all she knew was that she had to remember something.
She opened her eyes and saw the full moon glittering through the branches of the tree. It was getting cold now and she knew she wouldn’t last the night.
‘She sits on Shiva’s corpse. She is the master of life and death.’ Radha pointed to the expression on his face. It was the same look of contentment that Kali had on her face. ‘He is white and often wears a crescent moon in his hair. The Moon represents both the white of semen and of the mysterious substance called soma. She is red because she represents blood and life. When the white and red mix…’ Radha trailed off at the sound of her mother clearing up dishes in the kitchen.
‘But remember dear,’ Radha’s mother reached to touch her arm. ‘The veil of Maya has tears in its fabric to allow moments of bliss to seep through. If you can catch one of those moments you can follow it to bliss absolute.’ Radha closed the book and said, ‘that’s why they are both so content.’ She stood, placed the book back on the shelf and gestured toward her. ‘Come, we’d better get these saris on, you’re going to need help.’
She felt a tear well up in her eye, run down her nose and into her mouth. It tasted both sweet and salty. The wind was blowing through the trees and dropping the remnants of the brief shower onto her face – it was mixing with her tears. Through the trees she caught a glimpse of the full moon and the stars.
She had been slipping in and out of memories and dreams and consciousness…
She was in her backyard lying naked, the breeze playing delicately across her skin – the kisses of the stars……
As she looked at the stars she imagined the night sky was like a soft blanket with pinholes in it. She caught sight of one bright star and imagined drifting up to see through the hole… Flying into a distant sun…
As her father pushed hard for the last time, as she reached the point of ecstasy, as she reached the apogee, she let go…
As Chris lay still underneath her, erect, she felt a wave of climatic energy race up her spine and carry her outside herself…..
She had remembered at last.