The day my mother first fell asleep, it began to rain. It lashed heavily against the French windows, the mulberry trees in the yard almost screaming with terror as the wind whipped them ungracefully around and the old swing and dead flowers fell under the weight of water. As she sunk, languid and tired, into the depths of her own sheets, the world began to lose its own harmony and, all of a sudden, even though I hadn’t known she was going and I was all the way in New England, studying, knees apart like bickering sisters as I rushed through an essay that was long overdue and that the professor was sure to give me hell over, gravity sunk in on itself, and the air around me began to feel very different. I remember now that one line Murakami had written that registered so deeply with me: “The smell of rain was suddenly everywhere.” It comes to mind whenever I think of her sleeping. Long into the sinking afternoons and all the breakfasts she missed, the smell of rain fluttered around her as if she, herself, had some sort of power to carry her own sort of weather on her shoulders.
When I was seven, she had taken me to her gallery; showed me the paintings and drawings of trees she had done in ecstatic, unnerving moments of clarity. The awful streaks of colour were so dull, my heart almost broke at the sight of them. She had been lost, teenage in her mind, letting her fingers make something that represented nothing except the loss of her own sanity. It’s almost odd to think of how contemporary she seemed to be to everybody; in art magazines and coffee-table books, her photos were all black and white. She’d be smoking, eyes turned to some unknown spot behind the camera, her almost-smile conveying that she knew the secrets of the universe and wouldn’t dare to share them. Her suits would be crushed velvet, expensive and made to fit. Her eyes would be London grey, her face swiftly upturned towards the blinding kitchen light. She always got photographed in the kitchen. The journalists hurriedly writing in their notebooks, leaning back against the cupboards, delving into every word, every comment, every sigh she ever made. These interviews would last years, her photos printed over and over again, each time the smile seeming to falter a little in my eyes although it was always the same pose, the same smirk, the same woman who seemed so unforgiving as she stared hard into the lens. They thought, and still think, that she was a modern genius, the master of avant-garde. But as soon as they left and packed up their cameras and rolls of film, she’d collapse back into her Victorian cocoon — reading horribly large books, smoking unstylish cigarettes, resting in unmade, queen beds.
She hadn’t always been like that. Of course, she had once been the epitome of artists. She’d watch the sunrise in Barcelona and then the sunset, bleeding into the clustered landscape, in Berlin. She’d find churches and cathedrals to draw and go to clubs with watercolour on her t-shirt as if it was some sort of style European people just hadn’t caught up with yet. I still wonder if she memorised the streets, lost herself in the endless brilliant cycle of life and then retired to her bed at the age of 25, after a long, heavy pregnancy, so that she could make up for all the sleep she had lost when she was young. It was the only plausible explanation; she was the only person I’d ever known who successfully juggled the immense desperation of wanderlust and the overwhelming privilege of having to never leave home. Perhaps it was almost selfish of her; perhaps I wanted to blame her for everything and to project that all evil in our life had originated from the day she first held me and found that she didn’t love me as her mother had loved her.
It’s not that I never had the female influence in my life; it was the ’90s and my great aunts flooded our house, scoffing at the paintings that never sold and the contents of the fridge — or more readily, the lack of contents in our fridge. For a while, before I entered high school and learned about the easiness of food out of tins and cartons, I went to live with my grandmother. She was old and serene and treated me to dinners, soap operas, the occasional movie at the theatre. She wasn’t anxious about the world outside, had that Wilde state of mind — that it was either her or the wallpaper that would die first — and let me sleep in the spare bedroom where a haunting painting of Winchester Castle loomed over the bed. In the evening, when I watched the sunlight bleed cruelly in through the window and the rouge goodbyes of the night flicker as shadows onto the sticky, cheap desk, I’d gaze at the painting and know it would be the cause of all my future nightmares. Later when I’d turn eighteen, my then-boyfriend Paul would tell me he’d visited Winchester Castle one summer when he’d been visiting distant cousins and that it was ugly — simply the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. He’d walked through the Great Hall — the only thing that had survived the long years since 1067 — and had seemingly felt his heart shift at the gothic, timeless sight of it. It was the shift of the artist, the creative writing undergraduate, and whilst his humble mind wanted to love the bewitching jouissance that had risen in him, wanted to desperately go home and write terrible poetry about it, there was something slightly revolting about the way the hall stood, the way people gaped at its cracked grandness. It was the reminder that we all gripped onto the past, as ardently as mother did, ignoring the fact that past was just the future without the foolishness of mystery.
When my grandmother died, drifting away in a hospital bed, having just managed to steal autumn out of God’s hands as we crawled into the coldest winter of the century, my mother found it difficult to express emotion. They’d never been quite close, a distinct dichotomy between them, but yet there was a sense that they understood each other better than anyone ever had. They were both souls of affliction and suddenly, as she was dropped into the void of the earth, my mother realised this and wept softly, ignoring the hands that were awkwardly outstretched towards her. This was the only time I’d ever seen her cry and only five minutes later, the moment was locked away and she went back to her bed, leaving me to deal with the terrible casseroles and the nosy neighbours and all the other problems of youth. How was I going to afford college? Who would drive me to baseball practise now, playing pop songs about women as three or four girls sang along in the back, squashed together and piled on laps as the old Cadillac barely drove itself to nearby cities? How was I going to sell my grandmother’s house knowing that the wallpaper had outlived her somehow, in a cruel twist of providence?
The doctor didn’t know what had made her fall asleep so heavily and for so long. Looking at her calm, closed eyes and the sweet bliss of respite that rested on her facial features, you could easily forget that the living had ever even lived or that anybody could be as happy as she was in the arms of her own dreams. It was as simple as that one day she was awake, mumbling on the phone to me and trying to cover up the sound of another pack of cigarettes being ripped open, and the next she was in some kind of coma. She was in no pain, he assured me, and would probably chase herself out of it as easily as she had chased herself into it. But I almost doubted it. Once he left and I flung the windows open, checked the fridge, and wandered around the house that I had moved out of only a year before, having successfully acquired enough financial aid to study and live away, it dawned on me that I no longer had anyone in the world. All the great aunts had seemingly disappeared, leaving behind only traces of lipstick on mugs that were impossible to rub off. There were no more older women fighting to take care of me, scowling when my mother poured bourbon into her coffee and talking too loudly about the importance of a husband. All I had now were college friends who only understood me in the corners of parties, when they were steadily on their third cup of beer or some sort of stolen Novocain their boyfriends had acquired for them. It took me until after graduation, after a year of working steadily, writing, talking about affairs in expensive cafes, of going home to visit my mother who was still steadily asleep, somehow not needing food or water or a shower — a holy, modern miracle to the eyes of everybody but myself who had understood for a long time that this would somehow end up happening — to force myself out of that undermining state of mind. That no girl could ever know, nobody could ever ease out of me, no boy could write poetry about, and no gracious civilisation could understand what it felt like to be sad. To have been born sad, lived in it, bathed in, slept with it, seen it in every painting that crowded the house, found it mirrored in the mother who treated me as if I was a vase she’d forgotten to return to the store.
For people in grand relationships — girls who know what it feels like to be happy through another human being — they begin to speak with such utter defeatism and sadness that I’m forced to feel like I’m seeing reflections of people I could have been. People who are a little stronger, able to carry the weight of someone else a little better. People who are a little smarter, able to see before they know. It used to anger me, but now it forces me to see beyond relationships with soft edges and sharp corners and people with charcoal smiles and canvas faces; we all carry around a little pocket of history that lies invisible against our worn hips. And we can all sigh and mourn and huff at the people with the easy words and hurried discussions. We can sit there and claim that nobody knows how we feel when we are entirely surrounded by the hybrids of victims and villains. Everybody around us is a little tired of a something, a little scared of someone, a little afraid of someplace. So I vowed to quit thinking of myself as a story in a world that hadn’t learned to read yet. I began to think of myself as just a girl for once. That no matter what, I would somehow do the exact opposite of what she had done; I would keep on living.
I do wonder if she’ll ever wake up. But then I imagine it: the unmade, messy, heartfelt bed of codeine and dreams about Paris and the smell of rain staining everything in the room, and I wonder why she ever would. For who in their right mind leaves the sublime of the certifiable mind to enter the madness of the unforgiving world?
Zainab is a seventeen-year-old student living in the North of England. She is Murakami’s biggest fan and an ardent Americano-drinker, and she is passionate about music, stories, literature, films, cosmology, and pizza. In her spare time, she helps to run a zine called Circa Verne, and she can be found on Instagram: @contrazen.