Deborah Levy

The Milky Way

I talk to my mother for the first time since her death. She is listening. I am listening. That makes a change. I tell her I am writing a novel about a mother and daughter. There is a long silence. How are you, mother of mine, wherever you are? I hope there are owls close by. You always loved owls. Do you know that a few days after your death, when I was browsing in a department store on Oxford Street, I saw a pair of owl earrings with green glass eyes. I was suddenly flooded with inexplicable happiness. I’ll buy these earrings for my mother.

I carried them to the counter to pay, but as the shop assistant took them from my hand, I realized you were dead.
Oh No No No No
When I uttered these words out loud, I sounded mad and tragic, as if I was from some other century altogether. I walked away, leaving the little jeweled owl in her hands. At that moment, I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words. I mean, not just the actual words, but how he might sound when he says them.
They do not sound pretty, that’s for sure. I couldn’t get out of that shop fast enough.
Oh No No No No
Sorrow does not have a century.
I began to wonder for the first time how it was that Shakespeare’s pen had moved the lips of Hamlet to open and close and open again to speak the struggling words that so accurately described the way my mind could not accept your death. And then I read that he wrote Hamlet in the year his father died. The line that means the most to me in the entire play is Hamlet’s reply when asked what it is he is reading.

Words, words, words.

I think he is trying to say that he is inconsolable.
Words can cover up everything that matters.
I don’t see ghosts but I can hear you listening.

The war is over for you.
Here’s some news from the living. I have been visited by birds all this year, in one way or another. Some of them are real and some of them are less real.
But your owls are true. I have stopped thinking about why I am obsessed with birds, but it might be something to do with death and renewal. In the autumn, I made a new garden in the bathroom. The tall cactus had been on its way out for a long time, then it shriveled and turned brown. I stood in the bath and heaved it off the shelf. I kept the smaller silver cactus but this time I potted jasmine and lilies and ferns. Do you know that jasmine, like orange blossom, has a scent that is otherworldly but it can sometimes smell like drains? The fern hangs over the bath; the lilies make their adjustments to the light. The small silver cactus with its arms pointing toward the ceiling looks like it is praying for rain.
And so am I. Every day is hard.
And I love the rain.
Thank you for teaching me how to swim and how to row a boat. Thank you for the typing jobs that put food in the fridge. As for myself, I have things to do in the world and have to get on with them and be more ruthless than you were.