Hearing the Call of the Dodder
by Yvonne Jerrold
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I knew the silent people were everywhere, leading hidden lives among us, but I never expected to find one of them sitting in my office.
I didn't realise who she was at first. I had left the room for a few minutes, to clear my head. I had been trying so hard, all morning, not to be distracted, but I was being haunted by childhood memories that I thought I had forgotten. How foolish of me!
How could I ever forget the wild dodder boy?
It started after I'd gone back to visit Dodder's Well. Ever since then, I hadn't been able to get him out of my mind. Even when I was at work, every little thing, everywhere I looked, seemed to be reminding me. I would be trying to concentrate on doing my job, which was to act as a 'listening ear' to troubled art students, when some tiny gesture, like the tilt of a head or the blink of an eye, would send spatters of memory dappling across my mind and I would forget what I was supposed to be doing - or even where I was. Was he sending messages to tease me? What an absurd notion. Perhaps I needed another cup of coffee.
So, for the third time that morning I had walked downstairs to the coffee machine which stood in a shabby corridor outside the cafeteria. I could never understand why the place looked so neglected. With so many 'arty' people around I would have thought somebody would be inspired to smarten it up - it was an art college after all - but the only efforts at decoration seemed to be some red and black graffiti spray-painted on the door.
When I returned to my office, paper coffee-cup in hand, I found her waiting for me, a skinny student with a tumble of brown hair falling around her face.
"Hello, I'm Hebe," I said, feeling vaguely guilty at the sight of her. "How can I help you?" I hoped she didn't have anything weighty to discuss. I didn't feel up to it this morning. I felt like a fraud in this role. What did I have to offer the students? How could I help them find their way in the world, when I couldn't find my own? When my visitor did not reply I asked her, "Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?"
"No, thank you," she said quickly. She did not look at me as she spoke, but sat with her head bent down staring at the carpet, her long bony hands hanging limply from her wrists. She had a faintly exotic air about her and she was wearing something light and floaty, which made her look distinctly out of place in my office with its plain walls and metal shelving stuffed with files.
"Would you like a more comfortable chair? You're very welcome," I said, indicating a soft green armchair. There were two such upholstered chairs in the room, provided especially for visitors, and three hard plastic ones. She was perched on the very edge of one of the plastic ones, as if she had no intention of settling into it, but was ready to flee the room at any moment. Just like a heron, I thought, remembering the wary bird I had seen on the river bank.
"No thank you," she said. "I really shouldn't be here. I've come under false pretences..."
False pretences? I thought, as I sat down. So what! Join the club. I felt as if I had spent my whole life living under false pretences. But what an odd turn of phrase it was. Weren't all pretences false? What other kind could there be?
"You see, I've no intention of saving my marriage. I've only come here today so it will look as if I've made an effort." She paused but I didn't say anything. Who was she trying to impress by making this effort, her husband? Her family? Or was it herself she needed to convince? She looked very young to be married and, in any case, she was still a student. Many of the young people who came to see me had partners or live-in lovers, but rarely husbands or wives. "Actually I did make an effort," she added. "Lots of times. But that was before - when I was younger. Now I can't do it any more."
When she was younger? How much younger? The girl appeared to be still in her teens, hardly more than a child. I looked at her more closely. She was unbelievably thin. How could anyone be so thin and not fall apart? What was holding her bones in place?
"I've made up my mind," she went on. "So, there's no point talking about it."
I smiled, encouragingly I hoped, and said, "You do know that everything you tell me is in the strictest confidence?" She said nothing and, after a moment, I asked tentatively. "When did the problem start?"
"With your marriage?"
"With my marriage? Oh no. There's no problem with my marriage. My husband's a great guy. I wouldn't hurt him for the world. But it's like I can't... I mean, well, it's nothing in particular. Or maybe it's everything." She paused before adding, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come."
"I'm very glad you did," I said and I meant it.
I sensed a deep ambivalence in this young woman that intrigued me, an intensity of silence that seemed to fill the room with its energy, even while she was speaking. She gave a little sigh and appeared to relax slightly, but it was several moments before she spoke again. "I'm afraid I'm not cut out to be a wife," she said at last. "I thought I could do it, but I can't. It's impossible. I can't live like this."
"Like I'm paralysed. Like... I can't do anything when he's around. When he walks into the room, I feel a great weight descending on me and I can't move or think until he's gone away again. Don't get me wrong. It's not his fault. It's mine." At last she raised her head but, still, she did not meet my eyes. Instead she turned away and gazed mutely out of the window.
Yes, she was definitely a heron, I thought. She had the same air of watchfulness, as if she must be constantly on guard, and the same blend of firmness and delicacy in her pale features, from her high smooth forehead to her small pointed chin. She also had the longest neck I had ever seen on a human being. Her mouth, in profile, was small and soft, like a flower just about to open, 'a Rossetti mouth', as my sister Maddy would have said. Maddy saw everything in terms of paintings. She would describe somebody's face as a 'Renoir' or a 'Titian' and expect me to know what she meant.
My visitor was still staring silently out of the window. I followed her gaze, but all I could see were puffy clouds drifting across the sky and a small bird perched on the topmost branch of a maple tree across the road. Was that what she was watching, the little bird? The bird flew off and still the girl didn't move. I waited. I could feel a fluttering in my mind, like a fresh breeze rippling the surface of the river.
Suddenly the clouds parted and a streak of sunlight fell across her plain brown curls, transforming them into waves of glorious amber streaked with gold and orange lights. I even fancied I saw a flash of violet. Like dodder lights! I thought. I couldn't see the colour of her eyes but, even without looking at them, I was sure they must be amber too. Then she turned and looked straight at me and I saw that her irises were indeed amber, a bright orange amber flecked with red and gold. So, she was an amber heron. Finally she said, "I'll go mad if I don't get away."
"Have you told your husband how you feel?"
"Why would I do that?" She looked faintly bemused.
"Don't you think he'd want to know?"
"Yes. No. I don't know. Maybe I did tell him, but he can't hear me. He falls asleep or he wanders off. I don't mind. I'm not sure I want him to hear me. The thing is, I can't explain..." She stopped again.
"What can't you explain?"
"Well..." She sighed heavily. "It's like... well, after we got married, I was crying all the time and I didn't know why, and I couldn't stop, and I went to the doctor because I thought I must be ill or something. I mean it was so stupid. I was happy. I had won my heart's desire. I had married the man I loved, and still I was crying all the time. But the doctor couldn't find anything wrong with me."
"And why were you crying?"
"I don't know."
"Do you mean you can't remember?"
"No, I mean it was nothing. There wasn't any reason. It just happened. It crept up on me from nowhere."
"And what did your husband say?"
"Nothing. I never mentioned it to him. There was no point since I didn't know why I was doing it. And anyway, he'd think that's just the way I am, like I'm an emotional type. And now I couldn't tell him, even if I wanted to..."
"Because I can't explain it."
I nodded. I felt I understood her difficulty. I had been there myself. Wasn't that why I, too, was silent on so many things? Because I couldn't explain them..?
"I can't talk to him at all. My mind keeps slipping about. It's like there's a split inside my head. Know what I mean? It's like an earthquake, when the ground cracks and everything falls into a hole, but you knew the fault line was already there, like a sort of madness, and everything goes muddy..."
I nodded again. Sudden slippage was something I knew only too well. My own mind behaved like that sometimes. Without warning it would break through the wall that kept my two worlds apart and slide me out of one way of thinking and into another - as it was doing at this very moment, in fact, causing me to see this young student as a heron rather than as an ordinary young person in an ordinary predicament. It was like having a distorting lens suddenly appear in front of my eyes and show me the world in another light - in a dodder light as Grandma Poppy used to say. I could tell when it was happening, but I didn't know what to do about it.
Suddenly I wished I was a child again so I could run and find Grandma Poppy. She always knew what to do. She was never taken by surprise. She could feel when the dodder race was rising. She could read the signs. She could hear the silent roar that nobody else could hear - not that she would explain it to me, even if I could ask her. Poppy never explained anything. She didn't speak much at all except to tell nonsense stories or sing nursery rhymes to herself. When Maddy and I were children she spoke to us in riddles and left us to our own devices. Sink or swim, she didn't seem to mind - or even notice. Rain was one of the signs, I remembered. But it hadn't rained for weeks. Everything in the garden was shrivelling up. I felt a momentary dizziness as if I was losing my footing on a precipice and put my hand on my desk to steady myself.
"It wasn't always like that," the amber heron was saying. "In the beginning, I wanted to share everything with him. He was my true love, and I believed we would grow closer together as our lives became more entwined. I thought my universe would be enriched by floating it around his and... well, I guess I thought he felt the same way. I imagined he was yearning to see his world through my eyes too. But it wasn't like that. He wasn't interested in what I thought. It was like I was an alien being to him. At first I thought he would change. Silly me. And now I don't want to share anything with him at all, and the worst of it is, I hate not wanting to. I've lost..." She lapsed into silence.
"The dodder light..?" I blurted it out before I could stop myself. I felt my face redden, but my visitor did not appear to have heard. She was again sitting with her head bowed and her bony hands dangling in her lap, looking so forlorn that she could have been attending a funeral. But then she was, in a way. She was burying her hopes. She had gained her heart's desire and then she had watched it die. What would the future hold for her now, I wondered, now that she had lost her dream?
As I had lost my river boy.
There is a hollow in my heart, where my heart's desire died,
a long-forgotten cavern, where I cried and cried and cried...
He was my first love, and my only one, it seemed. I had always loved him, ever since I could remember. I don't know when it began, only that I was still a babe in arms when I first saw him on the river bank. I glimpsed a streak of brightness flitting through the nettles and, for a split second, I saw his eyes glowing silver in the shadows, before they faded in the instant to a dull gleam and melted into nothing. 'Dodda! I cried out, but he had vanished. Was that the first time I saw him, or was it only my earliest recollection? I didn't know. I had no memory of any earlier occasion and, yet, I knew him as soon as I saw him and, what's more, I knew that I had always known him. Later I wondered how he could run so easily through the nettles and not be stung. He must have skin like leather. I was always being horribly attacked by their vicious barbs. No matter how much care I took to avoid the tall stalks, there was always one spiteful leaf lying in wait to reach out and stab me. Of course, as an infant, I wondered no such thing. I only knew I wanted to run after that luminous creature and I couldn't, not then. When I was older I followed him everywhere - that was, until I lost him.
I became aware that the amber heron was stirring. She seemed more alert now, almost as if she were about to take off, and she had moved even closer to the edge of her chair - if that was possible. "The trouble is, he thinks he loves me, but..." She glanced at me briefly as she spoke and, this time, I saw a flash of green amid the amber-gold of her eyes. "I'm not an emotional type, you know, I'm..."
"You're...?" I started and then stopped. My mouth had gone dry. I reached for my coffee cup and found my hand was shaking. You're one of the silent people, I wanted to say. But of course I didn't. I realised she wasn't listening. She wasn't connecting with me at all. I had the feeling that our entire conversation had been a mask for something else that she wasn't going to tell me.
"The truth is, he doesn't know me..." she said with a little shake of her head. "He doesn't know me at all." The truth? I thought. Always tell the truth, the dodder boy used to say. They'll never believe ye.
The amber heron departed as swiftly as she had arrived. No hesitation, no lingering at the door, just a quick birdlike movement, a half-wink of her amber eye, and she was gone. After she left, I sat still for a moment, acutely conscious of the faint outdoor scent she left behind. Then, on impulse, I stood up and opened my office window. Looking down at the street below, I was just in time to see her hurrying away, with her long neck thrust forward and her flimsy clothes billowing out behind her. I wondered where she thought she was going. How could she be so sure she was doing the right thing? I wanted to call out after her, 'Hold onto your dream! Don't throw it away! You loved it once, remember..?' But I only stood and watched her pale form growing smaller and smaller until it was swallowed up in the busyness of pedestrians and traffic.
© Yvonne Jerrold 2006
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