(Trigger warning: Substance abuse, domestic violence)
It reminded me of one of the times I went to rehab.
She was an older woman. Her face was creased in places that indicated she had a low bullshit threshold. My dumb questions were answered in a hard, clear voice. She wore a navy blue kimono, her blonde and grey hair tied in a low bun. The gold engraved nametag on her chest read 'Maricourt'.
We sat in a thoughtfully designed room. Scandinavian aesthetic. Minimal. Not unlike a hotel room. The walls were cream coloured. The soft, plush carpet was a colour I could only assume was impossible to keep clean. The furniture was wooden and leather. The upholstery and soft furnishings were in gradients of grey and neutral tan, all was warmed by soft, natural light that poured in through an enormous floor-to-ceiling window at one end of the room.
This was the most exclusive rehab clinic I'd been to, I thought.
Outside the window, the view was obscured by a heavy, thick fog. I could make out only vague outlines of trees, and beyond that, nothing but grey and white cloud. It was quiet. Isolated. Still. I was never any good at quiet.
'Not everyone gets the opportunity to start over,' said Maricourt. 'It seems to me,' flipping through some paperwork, 'that this isn't your first time.' Her accent English, proper, formal. She looked me over with cool, dark eyes. It was hard to meet her gaze, but I'd never been able to look people in the eye. And despite this, her school-principal demeanour, there was something about her I liked. I was trying to work out why when she got up to leave.
Panic seized me. ''So, but, uh… what's the process for starting over? Can I get, you know, the orientation pack? Do I get... a new passport? A new identity?'
Maricourt raised an eyebrow, 'And what would you do with those?'
'A fresh start. Get a job. Get a dog. Start a hobby. Be a productive member of society. Eat free range organic chicken eggs. Happy ending.'
'You've watched too much television.'
'Guilty,' I said with a grin.
Her look wiped it off my face. 'There is food in the cupboard. Drinks in the fridge. The bathroom is over there. You can wander about if you like, there's not much to this place. We don't have many people here at the moment. I'll be around if you need me. And the process for starting over? Rid yourself of whatever is burdening you and heal.'
'Is there deep breathing and basket weaving too?' I'd been to a place like this before. Chanting and soundbaths and cleansing crystals.
With a wry look, she told me, 'Start with sleep. It takes a while to transition.'
My chest was aching. My skin crawled. The familiar sensations of withdrawal. 'Do you have something to take the edge off?'
'You are funny,' and she closed the door.
I collapsed on the bed. I'd like to see her try to align these chakras, I thought. As I fell asleep, I was caught in a tangle of images that shifted and tilted and dropped me in and out of existence. I was lying in the bath after ingesting a handful of pills I didn’t have a prescription for, washed down with a large glass of red wine. The radio was playing Janis Joplin, her growly voice growing softer and fuzzier by the second. I was looking up through the bath water and wondering why it was so hard to lift my arms. I gasped a mouthful of water and rolled over, pushing myself up by the arms and banging my head on something hard and metal. I collapsed to the ground, tasted wet concrete and blood in my mouth. I heard shouting and threats. I got kicked in my stomach. Through clenched eyes, I glimpsed an alleyway. I smelt garbage and rain. Doubled over in pain, I rolled to my back and felt the shaggy carpet of my apartment under me, a belt tight around my upper arm as someone laughed and then… oh that incredible flood of euphoria. As my head lolled, I rolled again, sitting upright, counting money in a wallet I found in a purse I’d snatched. My sinuses ached. I looked down and my hands weren't mine, they were a child's, short and stubby and covered with paint and I was hidden under a blanket with a teddy. I wiped my bleeding nose and I counted to seven. Seven more years and I will run away. The blanket was pulled away and I was sitting in the back seat of a car next to my best friend, who’s lips were blue and a cell phone was next to him and someone on the phone was calling out for more information. This was all my fault. I opened the door behind me and fell out, swallowed up by faces of people I’d hurt. There was a deafening roar of all the lies I’d ever told. A rush of pain, of all the needles and sores picked and smoke inhaled.
Eyes open in the darkness of the bedroom, clothing wet with sweat and urine, heart and head pounding, chest burning like a poker shoved down my throat, I rushed to the bathroom and vomited forth a thick, acidic, lava-like substance. It oozed down my chest. It stuck to my fingers and melted through my clothes and into my skin. It burned. I screamed.
When I woke again, my eyes fluttered open to soft, pale morning light. Maricourt was in the room in the same navy kimono as yesterday, hair tied in a ponytail. She knelt at a low table and poured a cup of tea. 'That wasn't the most elegant transition I've seen,' she said.
My voice didn't come when I tried to speak.
'Let's see what's left of you.' She undid the buttons on my nightshirt with a clinical detachment. I didn't have the energy to fight her off. She regarded my body with a kind of gruesome awe. I was scared to look down. A long, ugly, thick scar ran down the middle of my body, from my collar bones to belly button. Like the remains of primitive open-heart surgery.
'Now, I've not seen a wound like that for a long time.'
We walked into the fog. The air was heavy and cool. We walked through a grassy meadow that would have been beautiful in summer, but was wet and muddy now, leaving my feet cold, my pant legs saturated. Within moments we were in the dim light of a forest. Tall pine trees and moss-covered boulders. Real Hans Christian Anderson kind of stuff. Maricourt walked a path she knew well. I stumbled and swore. The forest opened abruptly to a lake. It was a dramatic view. Black, volcanic sand and pebbles lined the shore. The water was an inky black, icy to the touch and clear as glass as it pooled in my hand.
‘I’m not getting a new passport, am I.’
‘I’m afraid you’ll need a bit more than a new passport,’ she said with a rueful grin.
Maricourt called it 'The Waiting', a space between conscious lives. If one believed in heaven and hell, it could be purgatory. Others referred to it the astral plane. It was a place of healing, where karmic problems could be worked through and resolved before the soul was reincarnated. In her time there, Maricourt had seen these ‘karmic problems’ manifest in a variety of ways – as a physical disability, a missing limb, or an inability to speak or hear. Blindness. Tumours, growths, moles. Scars. Other times it was amusing, one soul arriving with trolleys of actual baggage, another that had bells that jingled whenever she moved.
'So, it's essentially a cosmic rehabilitation clinic.'
She smiled. 'If it helps you to rationalise it that way.'
'How does it work?'
'It really depends on what you need to heal. The person with the baggage needed a lot more than just unpacking and throwing it into the lake, or burning it. Some people like to talk. Some play music or paint. Others just want to be alone. They can be here a long time, those who carry their burdens alone.'
I shook my head. 'I did all that when I was alive. I've revisited my past, visualised my future, set goals - you name it, I've done it.'
'Clearly not what you needed though.'
‘Clearly. So, say I’ve healed. All is well. How do I get out of here?'
‘When you have unburdened yourself of what you need, you swim in this lake.'
I looked unconvinced.
'I've seen many do it. No one has come back so far.'
'They're not floating face down, getting eaten by fish? Sunk to the bottom of the lake?'
'You are funny,' she told me again. But she didn’t laugh.
That night, I retraced our steps through the grass and the forest to the lake. I knew Maricourt would know I had gone. I knew I wasn’t ready to be ‘reborn’. I didn’t buy this bullshit karmic atonement and soul healing. I’d probably taken a very bad trip – damn you Flossy and your homecooked acid! - and would wake up any moment now, shivering and sick to my stomach.
And if I didn’t, I would die trying.
I stripped off my clothes. My scar ached and stretched. The water cut through my flesh to the bone. But, I’m nothing if not the slow-learning, stubborn type. I waded then swam into the dark, cold, foggy night. I swam for what could have been hours, with no certainty that I wasn’t swimming in circles. Eventually I washed up and collapsed on the shore, right back where I had left my clothes.
Maricourt was standing there with a blanket and a hot drink. ‘It’s not a bad trip.'
It must have taken months. I told her the story of my life and all the miserable things that had happened to me. Sitting under a pine tree, stacking twigs, I told her about how my mother had a thing for bad guys, and iterated a history of each relationship, from my father who left us one morning and never returned, to Joe and Rod and Hal and Fred, and other men with single-syllable names, who beat me and screamed at me and threw bottles at me and came into my bed at night and did stuff to me, or made me to stuff to him, and who I would seek vengeance on by stealing money from, or running away for days at a time, and how, if I tried to get my mother to do something about it, she would shrug and tell me the number of years I had left before I could move out.
Collecting pebbles by the lake, I recounted my less-than-illustrious academic life, punctuated by suspensions and names of kids I had bullied and lists of injuries they had sustained. The first time I tried alcohol. The first time I smoked a cigarette. The time I smoked hash off my friend’s stove. The time I burned a hole in my pants because I passed out while high and holding a cigarette. A list of every illicit substance I could acquire, with and without prescriptions, the conditions under which I took them and the reasons I did it.
The crimes I’d committed and gotten away with – not once was I caught or thrown in jail. Snatching purses, breaking into houses, basic identity theft. Fraud. All articulated with great detail over numerous cups of tea.
Our dinnertime conversations often dwelled on my work as a short order cook, and the characters I met in the kitchen, who often featured in my narratives. My nemeses, my side kicks, my significant others, my love interests (if you could call it love).
And every time a story ended, she’d say, ‘You are funny,’ or ‘That’s a good story,’ and ‘But that’s not the story you need to tell to get rid of that,’ pointing at the scar beneath my shirt, which never faded and still burned as painfully as the day it emerged.
‘I’m sick of talking,’ I told her one morning after we had finished our tea. To be honest, I was angry, sick of the fog and irritated by her pseudo-spiritual garbage. I didn't want to be taught a lesson. I didn't want to be healed. I just wanted a new start. A clean slate. 'What's your story?'
She looked surprised.
She had been the wife of a wealthy British administrator in Burma in the 1850s. They’d lived in a remote region; the local population was hostile and barbarous. Her husband had been tasked with converting the land from uninhabitable mangroves to a profitable, safe rice-producing colony. Her husband was a practical and gentle man. Maricourt was the knife-like hard edge he needed. It wasn’t long before the locals cursed their names.
Maricourt’s children accompanied them into the wilds. Her youngest child died of an unknown disease shortly after their arrival. Her middle child, a boy, drowned while swimming in a local river. Her eldest daughter fell pregnant to a local boy. The night the baby was born, Maricourt bundled it in a sack loaded with stones and threw it into the same river that had taken her son. She sent her daughter back to England and never spoke of her again. Then, her husband was lynched by a mob of locals during an uprising.
And that was how Maricourt became the governess. Her narrative shifted to a recitation of cruel punishments meted out to the locals, of lists of families decimated to enforce a terrible peace, of land seized and homes razed to make way for rice paddies and slavery. Then there was the opium trade.
She paused, placed her teacup on the table and looked out at the fog. I could see the misery of that life play out behind her eyes. 'I was the very embodiment of the English colonial oppressor. I brought corruption to people who had never known it. I taught them greed and envy. Sold children into slavery to cover the debts of parents, who I worked to death, and those who couldn’t work I wasted with opium. I was so angry. Having been sent so far from home, that my children had been taken from me, that I had been cursed, my husband killed, and I had no control. I wanted them – those people, that place – to feel the pain I felt, the misery. But they didn’t. I could never break that peaceful spirit. I should have accepted my loss and sought peace. The numbers of lives I ruined... Had I suffered such things... I don’t have the grace. I don't believe I will ever atone.'
My mouth dropped open, in disbelief. This tidy, unassuming, composed woman before me.
She was quiet for a long time. Before she left me that evening, she said 'Of all the souls who have spent time here, none has ever asked my story.'
I didn’t see Maricourt for days. I spent my time walking through the forest and around the lake, thinking about her story. About my story. Each day, the fog lifted a little higher and more of the world came into view.
Perhaps I needed more than simply recounting the events of my life. But there would be no way to apologise for how I had hurt people, no reparations that could be made. And I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t the victim in all this. That I made choices that intentionally hurt others. That I chose to hurt myself. No, I was driven to it by how I had been treated by my mother and her boyfriends. There was no way I had made that life. I must have had a mental illness. None of what I did was my fault. I was a good person, worthy of love. I had been a victim in this.
The fog cleared a little more each day. My scar remained.
I stopped going for my walks. I lazed in my room. I slept, growing depressed at how little progress I felt I was making. I dreamt one night of Maricourt standing in the meadow outside my window. The sky was dark, clear and cloudless, the world illuminated by a full and bright moon. Every tree was outlined against the glimmering water in the lake. On the horizon, there were mountains.
Maricourt looked up at me and smiled. It’s your turn to wait, her voice said. Thank you.
My eyes shot open. My stomach surged. I fell out of bed and rushed to the window and I saw her in the distance on the shore of the lake, removing her kimono, untying her hair.
Her pale, scarless, perfect skin was ivory under the moonlight.
I ran to the door, but it was locked. In a panic, I banged on the windows. No. Don’t leave me.
She didn't look back as she waded into the water. You are funny, I heard her say.