She is lying full down in the bath, with the tepid water hooding her head and lapping just below the vaulted arches of her nostrils. Her breath, shallow and short, ripples the surface gently. She can hear her heart galloping distantly, as it so often does when she is ill, thrumming weakly but so quickly, a soft insistence sucking at the drums of her ears.
The swells of her breasts rise from the water, glistening and cool, the nipples pruned in the morning air. Her long, exhausted feet rise, too, at the far end of her, well out of the water, lean-boned and pale, marred with the angry knots and weals of tortured walks in ill-fitting shoes. They clutch the livid brass spout, flexing and squirming like newborns of an alien brood, quailing under the light.
She drifts in the shallow dream of herself, the lulling of the water, her breath, her heartbeat, audible and palpable at once, the other life inside her going on moment by moment, beat by beat, and all the vying thoughts going with it.
Always the thoughts.
Does the heartbeat have its own thoughts? she wonders. Or does it merely drive and amplify the dread that is coursing through her so wildly these mornings, urging the breath on with it, faster, shorter, sharper. Then, too, there are the headaches mounting all day, clenching her skull from the nape of the neck to the roots of the eyes like a caul of barbed iron. Yet? — ?and here she halts her own description, for the panic must stop. It must. She will not let this happen again.
There is the stall of recognition, for she knows this feeling, this progression of decline, she knows it very well, the consciousness curling under the despair, helpless as a page in the fire, succumbing to the grey, darkening possession. Slowly, slowly comes the blackness with its burning edge-glow eating inward to the center until all the parchment of her right mind is consumed and there is nothing but ash. Flaked and so fragile, it trembles there, fluttering on the balance of the unbearable heat, until at last it collapses and disappears with only the faintest of whists.
She knows what this is like. She watches it, she thinks it. She watches herself thinking it, and that is perhaps? — ?she remembers this particularly? — ?her only defense.
She bends her knees slightly and lets her feet sink back into the water. The toes are cold, the injuries ripe. They melt in the vague warmth and comfort of the bath. She lets herself feel this, every blister weeping, every scar moistening, and she sighs.
Now think, she urges herself. Think it away. I know you can. Concentrate. She furrows her brow and frowns, narrowing her huge, sunken eyes at the bounding rim of the porcelain tub, as if conjuring out of its whiteness the necessary will that is already so weak.
This, at least, she can control, if only she thinks of it well enough, attentively enough, if she makes herself tall and bending like the pair of priestly elms in the garden.
Yes, she thinks, the elms. In the garden.
Her mind begins to coast, moving within the picture, the mood of the morning, through the opened window and the unasserted light, out into the garden, over the moistening grass, the vaporous earth, and the insects hard at work, then up, as groundwater in root and trunk and branch and twig, all through the fretwork of elms. She thinks of them, swaying softly, outward to the smallest filigree of veins, the harmless air gossiping through their varied separations, making the tender leaves susurrate.
Now, she enjoins herself, as them. Think as them. She loosens her grip, rolls her scapulae down flatter against the belly of the tub, closes her bulbous eyes, breathes in once deeply, then sighs slowly, very slowly, eking out the breath. She begins to glide into the vision, just there, on the shushing in her flooded ears. She breathes again, and the exaggeration of the sound fills her, releases her.
My branches, she thinks. My branches are wide and firm, yet delicate, intricate, sensitive as flesh, clean and open to the air as two clear ramifying lungs. I am these trees, these elms? — ?she loosens, breathes again, enfolding and dispersing the breath.
“Breathe.” She hears her sister Nessa’s tender voice intoning out of the past. “Breathe, Virginia, breathe.”
And she does, pushing her breasts high above the water line and down again; she watches their ringed shorelines advance and recede over the puckered skin. She listens to the breath slowing, deepening. She thinks as the elms, of being the elms, healing the air. She thinks of her sister’s hands on her chest those days so long ago in the sickroom, lightly resting, the fingers faintly exploring, as if reading the Braille of her brocaded dress. Distress. She raises her mouth above the water and says this aloud, quietly, “Distress. The dress.”
Then, as if startled by the sound of her own voice, she sits upright with a great sloshing urgency, her buttocks squealing on the porcelain, her knees bucking, legs tensing straight and splashing. She listens to the esses of the spoken words hiss as they race around the bathroom, and she says them again, louder.
“Distress. The dress.”
She cocks her head to one side and considers the sounds and meanings of words, the one creating the other, the sound of the thing being the thing, the original thing, blazing through the world in true spirit? — ?dress,distress. The sound of it and the light of it as one. The wavelengths traveling in tandem.
And yet, she squints disapprovingly, the wretched intellect at work. Always the masculine mind interferes, taking the magic out of sounds and shutting it into words. The very word for this, the academic word? — ?onomatopoeia? — ?sounds like what it is, a chained sprite falling down the stairs. She laughs at this, and the sound of her laugh pops around the bathroom.
She is breathing harder again, she notices. Too animated once more by the thoughts. Too many thoughts. Too fast. She tries to think again of the elms and calm herself. Calm, she tells herself. Calm. You cannot take all of this at once. Again she thinks of Nessa’s hands on her and the voice guiding her. She folds her hands in her lap, in the pool of water there. She drops her shoulders, circles her neck.
But then she stops abruptly, midturn, and looks up.
“That’s it,” she says, quite loudly now, the outburst crashing back and forth between the tiled walls like a dropped pot.
“Eureka in the bath, you infernal Greek! I have it.”
This she has absolutely shouted, and she regrets it at once. She puts her hand over her mouth like