When Words Change the Moleular Composition of Water

by Jenni Fagan

As she watches her life back, the thing that strikes her most is the number of times she’s been saved. She is on her belly. Watching. One screen. She is in a long, slim pod and it reminds her of the capsule hotel she once slept in in Japan, for a whole week; it was $30 per night and felt like a well-lit coffin. This pod doesn’t feel quite the same. The screen takes up the entire end wall and she has to be careful to focus on exactly what she’s seeing or fast forward or replay or return is activated and it all becomes too confusing. What she is aiming for is chronological order.

She is trying not to get upset anymore. It does not help one bit that this is not how she expected it to be. There was no white light. No familiar faces greeted her, just a small dog walking ahead, leading the way, nodding her toward the pod and her climbing in and the door mercifully staying open and that is how it begins.

She is naked. More comfortable naked now than she ever was, although she is still lumpy and bumpy and the L-smile scar across her tummy is still there, where they took the baby. She hasn’t watched that bit yet. Not yet. Not that bit.

What is striking her again and again as she watches herself is how many times she only just avoids death, or being raped, or walking in front of a car, or choking on Spam (it was a trip to South Korea) or the time she has a pencil jabbed just to the side of her ear and it misses her brain by millimetres. Her younger cousin, the culprit, is in the footage now, crying and crying, and her bleeding, and later she is walking through a meadow. Later still, through a park with trees, it is 5.37am and cherry blossom falls and she is still moderately high after a party, a first date, and two streets away there are four men who do not turn down the alley where she would have bumped into them. She is wearing a loose, full-length skirt and she looks happy and free.  

Outside the pod, light does not appear to change; she does not know if she has been here for a day, a year, or something in between. She has no hunger. She cannot blink. It’s not that she cannot remember how to blink, it is just the case that blinking doesn’t happen here. She senses this naked body is just a way for her to feel more comfortable until she can accept something that is too big for her mind, or heart, or soul.

Her pod is in a row of pods and when she steps out and looks along them, it is not possible to see where they end – they trail off into an apparent infinity. There are skies. There are grassy hills on either side. Feet hang out of the ends of some of the pods, and in the one next to her, on the right, a pair of legs, black, with pins in the knees. When the legs step out, they turn white at the thigh and the lower area appears as a bruise, as if the legs themselves died but only up to the thigh. The man looks at her.

On the screen she is waving to herself. A silly thing to do, but once she’d had the idea, every so often on a street corner or in bed or walking along the beach, she would wave. To a stranger she would appear to be waving at nothing, but what she was waving at was her future self, who would one day sit down and watch her entire life back — she thought that might be an arduous process, so a wave might help. At this exact moment she is stood at the top of a castle in Bodrum; she is waving from the parapet. She waves and her hair blows in her eyes and behind her there is a large stone penis. It is pretending not to be a penis, but nobody is convinced.

She begins to file how long she spent in life doing each activity.
789 hours spent watching home-improvement shows.
1836 hours watching reality programmes about people much wealthier or better looking than she ever would be.
9 years waiting for things, for letters, wages, people, love, stuff, health, hope — waiting to become something she could tolerate living with.

That didn’t happen.

She climbs out of her pod and looks along the row. Tonight the sky is pink and there is a moon slim as a fingernail. It is nice to sit outside and take in the breeze. The man in the pod on the right is twitching his feet. Sound out here in the open air is muted; she hears nothing. The volume has been turned off, as if by parents who know their children will only sleep, or concentrate, when all extra-sensory stimulation is removed.

She is in the aisle of B&Q looking at the expensive paint and wondering which colour to pick. Once she has chosen, she will find a member of staff and give them the expensive shade — so they can mix up the exact same colour in the cheaper house brand. A toddler in a trolley gums a mobile phone; his mother picks up some colour samples then turns out of the aisle. She is on her own again and eventually she decides on bowler-hat grey, then a chapel green for her bathroom. This footage calms her. Sensible hours spent changing the colour and tone of her world. She picks up some solar lights. They soak up the sun, and even though the sun only arrives occasionally in winter, she buys them. They are dragonflies and during the daytime clear glass will soak up sunlight and at night they will glow red, green and blue — a little loud, but she needs something cheerful when she looks into the back garden at night and all she can see is black.

She has her hand on a door. The door to university, to a classroom, to a life she is not sure she can engage in, and she is hesitating, sweating. She knows her heart rate is climbing and what she is really scared of is having a panic attack in front of someone else, of hyperventilating on the floor while an unbearable fear pummels her consciousness, and she has always been terrified of this, she realises, as she plays back to her first day at school, and every lunchtime, every break time it is not always so painful and she does not even understand it in life — all she knows is: she feels uncomfortable around people.

She is in the university classroom in the back row and she has some diazepam in her bag and she keeps her head down and takes careful, precise notes.

Age seven, she is stood in front of a drawer with a monkey on it and being told that is her drawer and that is her name and that she must put her new jotters in there and a rubber and at break time they will gather in front of a crate of small bottles of milk and they will be given this to drink and a square of cheese, and it is meant to be a treat but when she gets there, she will find the milk is warm and the cheese is sweating, and she will eat it anyway because that is what they all must do.

The man to the right often sits looking down the hill behind the pods. There does not appear to be anything at the bottom of the hill and she wonders if they are only playing a night and day sky to appease them. Last evening the sky was impressive; she saw several satellites and forgot her discomfort at being unable to blink. She wants to ask him how long he has been here. Nobody asks anyone anything; they do not speak. There are thousands of them — one old lady seven pods along does Tai Chi every morning. The silence is astounding. It might be because of the lack of vocal cords, or the inability to work them, although occasionally they hear singing and look in the direction of this sound with utter awe and somehow it makes the whole place feel peaceful.

She cannot get used to how rare it is to hear anything here. In your pod, of course, you can hear every sob and fart and grunt and orgasm; and every sneeze and every laugh, and every sigh and every snore, and every plea to another for love — enough to heal the hurt — the past – the things within themselves they had all evidently found too difficult to bear.

That is what she struggles with as she looks at the others along the line and realises if this were a class, they would all be getting Fs and maybe that is why they are here. She cannot take the footage again and decides to walk to the bottom of that hill and see what happens; it is absolutely unclear who or what is in charge here. She had been looking forward to seeing so many people but it turns out — just as in life — right now, she is alone. Making a decision. To walk to the bottom of a hill. It feels like the hardest thing she’s ever done — all that space — so exposed, she goes forward feeling exposed away from the pods; she will do it so she will be more comfortable later, and maybe even rest (they don’t sleep here) with ease.

She is watching the hours she has cried — it is depressing even now and she realises each area of her life can be watched chronologically or under headers such as crying, orgasms, telly, painting nails, on the telephone, travelling, ordering takeaway, walking, appreciating, seeing friends, getting dumped — dancing, cycling; she did a fair bit of that.

She spent 19 days of her life ordering takeaway food. She has spent 17 months crying. This is the most extraordinary thing and although maths was her weakest subject, she still knows that is quite-a-fucking-lot.

No waves today. She needs another one of those. Everything here feels more unreal than it did down there, but more than that, the guilt is utterly unbearable. The man three pods along left yesterday. He walked down the hill and has not come back. She will go down the hill tomorrow; she only made it about 30 feet yesterday before she had to return.

She is laying in a hospital parting her legs as a woman inserts four fingers, and the little sticky tabs on her tummy are blue and the screen is beginning to beep and people are running into the room and she is asking if the baby is okay.

The man with black legs looks in her pod at her. She looks back. He smiles. She gets out of the pod and the two of them just stand there for about an hour, looking at each other. The sky turns orange. He writes something in the sand.

     Are you okay?
She writes back with her toe — I don’t know.
     How did you get here?
     I don’t want to talk about it.
     You got here the same way I did, he says.
     She is so shocked that she climbs back into her pod.

Every so often, she glances back without turning her head and she can tell he is still there. To soften her deep unease, she replays a field of lavender and as she walks through it she lets the long grass skim her hands. There is a plough two fields away from her and it is throwing up earth and yellow spikes of hay; a young farmer turns it around. She takes her shirt off to sunbathe unseen while mice burrow and make nests. Above her was a sky. Azure. Hopeful. She fell asleep like that and a tick settled on her arm, opened its arachnid mouth, and bit down.

She goes back to that moment, zooms in on the thing, millions of years of evolution creating black legs, an exoskeleton and the ability to infect. In the field she dreams on, happily unaware. It is quite beautiful. Her face is not as saggy as she thought it was. She does things in her sleep that she has never seen before. Words muttered under her breath. Scratching. A twitch on her right eye and turning often, this way, then that. As if sleep is an uncomfortable place but she cannot remember that, not that day, sleeping in the sunshine, the sound of the wind and the smell of honeysuckle and long grasses swishing gently as a broom on a wooden floor.

Later, she walks home with burnt shoulders, at peace.

It is the day her brain broke. She is walking across a green and a tractor appears to be circling around her; she is getting angry, she is muttering — what’s-your-fucking-problem! The tractor is cutting grass and spraying it out and the noise is so loud she is holding her ears.

Grey sky, no bench, vast expanse, walking to the bridge, baby is with Grandma, the doctors have tried, one tablet, another, none of them work, they make her feel as if she is on LSD. It is winning, the exhaustion, years of it. Her face registers nothing. She cannot watch what comes next. She cannot watch. She slips out of the pod and wishes she could close her eyes.

A vast expanse of grass and feeling her head actually break and if she panics (she was panicking) there will be nothing to grab for support, her legs may give way, she has to slow down, but the panic attack gains speed as she reaches an outdoor ladies’ toilet and realises that instead of being able to just run in and hide from the street (hyperventilate in peace, as she has learned to do, to cure the agoraphobia — evidently not a foolproof cure), what she is realising as she begins to hyperventilate outside the ugly, small building is that you need 30p, in change; then you have to pay the woman (whose back of head is curly haired and tabard is on, blue, checked, over a jumper, as it is cold), so instead she walks across the road and goes into a store where the lights glare and she realises that whatever has happened to her is not going to go away.

A million years of fight-or-flight giving her enough adrenaline to outrun a dinosaur and at the counter in the supermarket, it is only the girl who always has eyeliner on and braces on her teeth, the one she saw (and was surprised to see) in a sports car with a man. She is serving her and she is not a dinosaur, but her body does not understand the difference anymore.

While paying, she grips onto the credit card slot, types in 9765, puts her groceries into the bag, all the while wanting to run, screaming, from the store. When she walks out of there (still upright, nobody else any the wiser), she is convinced she is a national hero. A superhero. The overcomer (or accepter) of fear.

It is barely the beginning.

When the man with the black legs holds his hand out to her she notices there is a flower tucked behind his ear. She holds his hand. It feels warm. She wants to know where her grandma is. It’s the only thing she really looked forward to in coming here. The man is writing a word in the sand. Love. The word he writes out is ‘love’. The effort tires him out, quite evidently and she feels ashamed that she wants him to explain this place to her, explain everything to her, but she doesn’t know who else to ask. He hobbles back on his swollen legs with their metal pins and she notices that his toes are mashed and short. She will not push him for answers even although he is the only one who will communicate with her; she must wait until he is stronger.

It’s a moon. It’s far away. Further away than our moon. Perhaps it is Venus’s or just some other moon (equally pretty). She is glad it is here and she is walking down the hill again and nobody seems to notice. The grass is cool under her bare feet, it is soothing to her and she needs this walk, this space; the part of her life she watched today is a part she’d forgotten and had not wanted to watch again and she will not think of it now, not even to herself; she will repeat the word ‘love’. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. Love. The thing about words is they can alter the molecular compositions of things; this is most noticeable in water — a Japanese scientist said different words to a glass of water and depending on which words he said, the molecular components changed accordingly. ‘Love’ is the word she must say. It is not the first time she has had to retrain her brain — the areas of her brain dimmed in a scan, showing damage, unable to continue, needing respite, the lights going out from the inside.

Inside, out.

What she does when she wants to commit suicide: is dance. She picks a CD. It takes a while. She closes the curtains (light is not her friend), she hooks up her vintage amp and the two Marshall speakers that make up her stereo and she presses ‘play’. Everything in her is utterly unable to bear this pain, but she has no choice. There is no deadline. There is no out-date. There is no guarantee she will ever feel better and in fact she might only feel worse and to this — fact — she chooses to dance. Her cats on the back of the tiny sofa, nose to nose, watch her as she stretches her arms up and shakes her hips and she might be crying, but she can still move!

She is leaning against her pod and so is the man with the black legs who, it turns out, is called Jim. He wrote it with his short toe. She wrote hers. They are sitting against their pods and it is starry and the breeze is cool, although she has never been cold here, not yet. They are watching two women a few pods along who are dancing with each other, a waltz; one lets her head fall back and the other expertly supports her waist and her body flips back up and they turn like that, the sand underneath their feet patterned with swirls, indents where heels have slammed into the ground, trails where feet have skimmed the sand that they all walk on. Later on, she sits on top of her pod and Jim sits on top of his and they are happy. Even later still, they go to get back in their pods but at the last minute she looks at Jim (who has been holding her hand for the last hour) and — they swap.

They swap pods.

She didn’t know they could do that.

It’s time to make a Christmas cake with her grandma. It will take three months. The first part is the most important part. She goes to the store with Grandma. They buy a bottle of gin, a bottle of some cherry stuff, some brandy. Fruit. Dried. Four bags. Home up the hill, past the stone square in the middle of the council estate that was built to be used as a paddling pool for the kids in the summer — as a focal point, as a place where families might meet and picnic, but the water founts broke and it laid empty all her lifetime. She would jump in and out of it to play there, though. Take skipping ropes in and jump for hours. At Grandma’s, on the side path she once found a war-time coin and it was worth money and she got slapped for suggesting she could keep it (not by Grandma) and in the footage they are unpacking bags in her long, thin kitchen and there is a cupboard at the end that Grandma made into a larder. A radio plays and there is a table with a Formica top where they are laying out the fruit and alcohol and the glass bowl with curved edges at the top in the shapes of fruit and the glass ladles and Grandma is telling her about when she was in the Wrens in the war and they used to stand on that table (her girlfriends) and they would use teabags to stain their legs brown when they could not afford stockings, and then go out dancing. She always said that the war-time years were the best years of her life.

She wishes she were back next door in her pod watching that instead of Jim, who is walking through the city. He has stepped out of an office, he is upset, he has an engagement ring in his pocket and he is wearing a mack and when he gets to the bridge she wants to shout out and the cars just whizz by and it is windy and he walks along and there are boats. Further out there are platforms, small rigs, there is a tall ship in the distance with four white sails and his face, as he climbs over; she is crying now and she has her hand up against the screen, her fingers splayed out as he jumps and his coat billows like a balloon — it slows his fall by only a fraction of a fraction, but it is enough.

Under water.
Pressure above like the earth itself is on top of her head, like she is Atlas, unable to bear the weight, like nothing she could possibly imagine and only the deepest, instant, most complete regret.

She cannot watch her funeral. She cannot see the faces of those she loves, she cannot see her child without experiencing a pain more unbearable than any she knew in life, Jim is outside her pod holding her foot and in the sand he has written the word — ‘forgive’.

Jim doesn’t die; as he hits the water his leg bones break in 103 places, the coastguard boat drives by at that minute, fishes him out, a helicopter is called in, the noise of the whirrs as it lands, he is taken to a hospital and his lower body placed in a cast for three years.

How could he do it again?

Jim goes back to work. He has black legs. Nobody knows. He sits on buses. He goes to the swimming pool and makes himself stand at the edge holding onto the metal ladder until he stills and then he swims.

He swims free of the edge.

She cries as she watches it. They have swapped pods but she must go back to hers and she will, in a minute, but for now she watches his head dip under the water, his face rising up, his goggles, steamy around the edges, the echo of the pool, the glimpse of a beach outside the window. He looks happy.

They sit on top of the pods, holding hands. She knows he has watched the bits she can’t watch yet and he knows she has watched the unseen bits of his life and neither of them can walk down the hill yet. But in her head, every day, she is practising words that might positively alter the molecular composition of water.


Photograph by Andrea Cerri

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